An Ontario physician and her husband — the first people in Canada known to have caught the coronavirus variant originally detected in the U.K. — are vowing to fight public health charges alleging they hindered contact tracing efforts.
Dr. Martina Weir and her husband, Brian Weir, who works for Toronto’s paramedic service, both said in statements issued through their respective lawyers that they are not guilty, intend to plead not guilty and will “vigorously defend” themselves.
As CBC News previously reported, it was only by chance the lab that handled the couple’s COVID-19 tests identified the variant.
The couple, from Durham Region east of Toronto, are each accused of three non-criminal counts under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act that were laid last week but only formalized Tuesday. The charges include:
- 2 counts each of “failing to provide accurate information on all persons that [they] may have had contact with during their period of communicability for COVID-19.”
- 1 count each of obstruction for “providing false information” to public health officials.
In Martina Weir’s case, the obstruction count alleges she gave the false information to Durham Region’s associate medical officer of health during contact tracing in relation to the coronavirus strain first reported in the U.K.
Brian Weir’s obstruction count alleges he provided false information about whether he had contact with anyone who had travelled from the U.K.
CBC News has learned that a close family member who lives in Britain flew to Canada in mid-December to spend time over the holidays at the Weirs’ home.
Initially, in its Boxing Day announcement that a then-unnamed Durham couple had tested positive for the coronavirus variant first reported in the U.K., Ontario’s Health Ministry said they had “no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts.”
But a day later, the ministry issued a second statement alleging the couple had withheld information. “Additional investigation and follow-up case and contact management has revealed that the couple had indeed been in contact with a recent traveller from the U.K., which is new information not provided in earlier interviews,” the ministry said in a Dec. 27 statement.
It was only by accident that the coronavirus variant, first reported in the U.K. in December and known as B117, was found in the couple’s coronavirus tests, according to Public Health Ontario. The province does not check each positive case of COVID-19 for the B117 strain.
Employment under review
Martina Weir works as a physician at two publicly run nursing homes and three hospitals in Durham Region.
A spokesperson for the nursing homes said Weir wasn’t at work between Dec. 11 — well before she is believed to have tested positive for COVID-19 — and earlier this week. The spokesperson said there are no concerns about any risk to the homes’ residents, but Weir’s contract employment there is under review.
A spokesperson for the hospitals, Sharon Navarro, said staff coming to work there “must attest that they have not travelled outside the country and or had contact with anyone travelling outside the country.” She did not answer questions, however, about whether Martina Weir had been to work in mid-December, or whether any other staff or patients who may have tested positive for COVID-19 are being screened for the B117 variant.
Neither Weir nor her lawyer would say whether she went to work at the hospitals during the period when she was potentially contagious.
CBC News has no indication that Weir went to work and put anyone at risk at any of her workplaces.
By law, Weir has to report the charges against her to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the provincial regulator for doctors. The college can then follow up with an investigation, and if so, the results are forwarded to a committee that decides whether to take no action, issue a caution, ask a doctor to undergo remedial training, or send the matter to a full disciplinary hearing.
The college said in a statement on Tuesday that, in general, “Countering public health best practices at any time — including during a pandemic — represents a risk to the public and is not acceptable behaviour.”
Toronto Paramedic Services, where Brian Weir works as a senior scheduler for the city’s emergency medical service, said it wasn’t aware of the charges against him and wouldn’t comment on something pertaining to its “staff as private citizens.”
Brian Weir’s lawyer didn’t answer a question about whether Weir was at work during the period when he was potentially contagious.
CBC News has no indication Brian Weir went to work and put anyone at risk at his workplace.
The Weirs’ first appearance is set for March 10 in provincial offences court. The charges carry a maximum penalty of $5,000 each.
‘Elevated moral responsibility’
Martina Weir is believed to be the second doctor in Canada charged with a public-health offence in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. A doctor was charged in New Brunswick last year with failing to self-isolate for 14 days after he returned from a trip to Quebec to pick up his daughter.
Bioethicist Kerry Bowman of the University of Toronto said that, in his view, health-care workers have “an elevated moral responsibility” because they are “in a position of trust with the public.”
“We’re in this awful race right now, over these difficult winter months, with vaccines and the variant and everything else,” he said. “So it’s very … very serious.”
According to Statistics Canada, 17 of the country’s biggest police forces responded to more than 16,800 potential violations of provincial laws and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic between March and August. The data does not indicate how many of those cases resulted in fines or charges.
At the federal level, the Public Health Agency of Canada said earlier this month that police have laid eight charges, given out 126 tickets and issued around 200 warnings for alleged violations of the Quarantine Act, which applies to people entering Canada from abroad, between late March and Jan. 5.