Canadian Medical Association chief urges Ottawa to explain lack of preparation for pandemic

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Canadian Medical Association chief Dr. Sandy Buchman, seen in Toronto in 2019, says health officials are doing everything they can, but more should have been done well before the new coronavirus arrives .

Tijana Martin / The Globe and Mail

Head of organization representing Canada’s physicians says health care system was “unprepared” for the current pandemic, and sees no reason why the federal government does not fully recognize the weaknesses revealed by the COVID-19 crisis .

“I am trying to understand the government’s response today because I think everyone has been taken care of,” said Sandy Buchman, President of the Canadian Medical Association. “The front line keeps telling us that they are not prepared and that they are afraid. We hear it from everywhere. “

Dr. Buchman responded to a 2006 federal document that said Canada had to be better prepared for a pandemic or face serious consequences. These warnings, which strangely foreshadowed much of what is happening in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, were the subject of a report by The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.

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The 2006 plan warned that a new virus could spread very quickly, transmitted by people with no symptoms, and urged governments to be ready with a national stock of medical supplies to help and protect health workers from outbreaks of infectious patients.

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Instead, the provinces are scrambling to find resources, in part because the federal emergency stock is short. In Alberta, for example, hospitals urgently wait for 74 ventilators to treat critically ill patients that the province expected to receive from the national stock. However, the Public Health Agency of Canada has informed Alberta that the stock can only send six.

Doctors wondered if the federal health authorities had acted quickly enough after the virus appeared in late December. For much of January and February, the government has declared the risk of an outbreak in Canada low.

When asked Thursday if she regretted not taking steps to prepare for the current situation earlier, Health Minister Patty Hajdu did not respond directly, but repeatedly praised the work that are currently doing public health officials. “I just want to reiterate my thanks for the leadership of the phenomenal public health officials who guided us through this. We are certainly grateful for their expertise and their involvement in determining the answer, ”said the Minister.

Dr. Buchman acknowledged that health officials are doing everything they can, but said that more should have been done long before the virus arrived to revitalize Canada’s health care system. “All we have seen are cuts. We have not seen adequate resources allocated to health care, “he said. “My fear is that if we are pushed … because of the lack of access to adequate treatment and supplies, people will die.”

Kulvinder Kaur Gill, who represents 10,000 physicians in the Concerned Ontario Doctors group, said she and her colleagues were devastated Thursday by news that a caretaker who worked at a Brampton hospital died of COVID-19, which would be the first death of a health care worker in the province.

“It affects me at home because I practice in Brampton and my fear was that there would be tragic deaths of front-line workers due to inadequate access to personal protective equipment,” said Dr. Gill. “It is rationed and often not provided.”

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The underfunding of public health has been a limitation. And the alarming number of cases now brings a huge amount of work.

– Peter Phillips, infectious disease specialist in Vancouver

Despite numerous warnings of shortages during a pandemic, successive governments have failed to act on plans to strengthen the system.

In Thursday’s federal pandemic briefing, chief federal public health officer Theresa Tam said the stock is “highly specialized” but unable to meet demand that he faces. The system has “smaller advanced capabilities, but it was never designed to support the entire health care system in Canada,” she said.

This is not what many hospitals and provincial governments assumed at the start of the pandemic, given that the stock has been designed for decades as an emergency safety net. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said his government had been informed that federal stocks were not as large as initially thought.

“As I understand it, PHAC simply did not stockpile equipment and supplies in sufficient quantities to help the country weather a pandemic of this nature,” said Kenney in Edmonton Thursday .

Dr. Tam defended the plans that were in place when the virus first appeared and stressed that it is difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate the spread of pandemics. “The best thing to do is to reject all of the previous assumptions because they are probably wrong. ” she said.

However, many of the assumptions made in the 2006 federal pandemic plan were prescient, including instructions to act quickly to stem the spread of the virus and to ensure that the country had, at a minimum, “a supply 16 weeks’ regular medical supplies. stored. “There will be shortages,” he warns.

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Peter Phillips, infectious disease specialist in Vancouver, said the limitations of the rapid response system are not so much a lack of planning, but a chronic lack of money for the public health sector across the country. Canada, an area he believes to be federal. governments have neglected.

“The underfunding of public health has been a limit. And the alarming number of cases now brings a huge amount of work, ”said Dr. Phillips.

“The tests need to be rolled out in a much broader way … this should not be left to the provinces,” he said. “Given the lack of treatment and vaccine, it is about stopping the spread, and public health needs all the help they can get.” ”

National security expert Wesley Wark said Canada’s slow response to the virus from January to mid-March was confusing, given the high levels of concern that spread in the medical community when COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China, resulting in the closure of the Chinese government. entire cities and restrict travel.

“There was an awareness that extraordinary things were happening in Wuhan. On the other hand, there was a view [by federal officials] that it would not be a serious outbreak for Canada – that Canada was only a low risk, “said Mr. Wark, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. The Chinese don’t just decide to lock up a big city and a whole province for no reason. ”

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