Finding your way on the public health information highway during COVID-19


5 March 2021

There’s a particular feeling that can accompany road travel, one that many of us have experienced. It’s the creeping realization that you might be a little lost. Your phone is on 5% battery life and you haven’t had a paper map in the car since 2002.

At times of heightened urgency like the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating public health information can feel a bit like being on that road. We hope this post can help you on your way to the information you need.

“Public health” is a system in Ontario that works at a population level to keep people safe through the detection and prevention of and response to infectious diseases and improve overall health by promoting healthy behaviours. Find out more about how Ontario’s public health system works outside of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Public Health Agency of Canada PHAC) is a federal organization that communicates at the national level with the Canadian public during the pandemic. PHAC leads on issues such as travel, federal control measures, and national coordination. PHAC presents national case numbers, supports the work at the provincial level, contributes to the supply and distribution of medical supplies, and provides federal supports for people and businesses. PHAC also operate the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) located in Winnipeg which is leading coordination among public health labs at the national level and providing testing capacity in areas of the country where capacity is more limited. Find out more about PHAC and the COVID-19 information they provide at

Ontario’s Ministry of Health (the Ministry) sets the strategic directions and priorities for Ontario’s health system, including both health care and public health. The Ministry is leading the province’s COVID-19 response. The Ministry has implemented an enhanced response structure with a command table that oversees the response across the province.  The command table includes representation from various government ministries and agencies (i.e., Ontario Health, Public Health Ontario) and academia. It is supported by a variety of advisory and coordination tables.

In terms of public health, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Public Health sets policy and provincial control measures. It communicates health guidance for Ontarians. It works to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to respond to urgent and emergency situations. It sets out directives and guidelines around screening, testing, triage, precautions and reporting, as well as the case definition, public health management and resources for health sector partners. When needed, the Chief Medical Officer of Health has the authority to direct local jurisdictions in Ontario to implement public health actions in response to a public health risk or emergency.

Other provincial government COVID-19 roles include:

Ontario’s provide updates and information specific to various regions of Ontario. The COVID-19 situation on the ground varies across the province, as do different jurisdictions’ pandemic responses. Your local public health unit:

  • provides general COVID-19 information specific to your area
  • follows up with those who test positive with COVID-19 to work to help them understand how to self-isolate and to determine how they were exposed to the virus and follows up with all of the contacts of the individual to help stop the spread
  • sets and enforces local public health measures (i.e., municipal park closures, closure of non-essential businesses)
  • provides information to and works with local community organizations

Public Health Ontario is an agency of the Government of Ontario. Our role during the COVID-19 pandemic is to provide scientific and technical advice and support to clients working in government, public health, health care and related sectors. We perform thousands of COVID-19 tests every day and act as a reference laboratory, supporting other labs across Ontario coming on line with testing and validating new testing methodologies. We provide training and support to health care partners in infection prevention and control. We analyze data to measure the spread and impact of COVID-19 in Ontario, to inform the use of public health measures. We synthesize knowledge from the rapidly published research literature and answer scientific questions from Ontario’s Ministry of Health, public health units, and other health stakeholders to aid them in their decision making. PHO does not set or enforce public health policy or provide medical advice or infection prevention and control guidance to individuals.

When it comes to navigation, some people prefer their phone’s voice to tell them which turn to take as they approach, and some prefer a detailed, fully-mapped view of the road ahead. If you’re one of the latter, consider consulting this page, to get an even greater level of detail about the structure that has been established to respond to COVID-19 in Ontario.


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Updated 5 March 2021