Government documents reveal slow start of COVID-19 response in Canada


Briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats for federal ministers show how quickly the COVID-19 situation has changed in Canada – public health officials say the risk of transmission in Canada is low until early March, to recommend an orderly cessation of economic life in this country about two weeks later.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Thursday that it could take up to a year before normal life returns to Canada – a dramatic change in messages, given the way Agency officials public health in Canada informed policy makers less than two months ago that the risks of COVID-19 were low in this country, and that mandatory quarantines for return travelers would be too difficult to enforce.

A briefing note written by the department on March 10 and prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu before question period stated that, with only 12 cases reported nationally at that time, “the risk the spread of this virus in Canada remains low at this time. ” The note also states that the public health system is “well equipped to contain cases from abroad, which limits the spread to Canada.”

A month later, Canada has more than 21,000 cases.

As the documents show, as early as January 28, the World Health Organization (WHO) described the risk of transmission of COVID-19 as “very high” in China and “high worldwide”.

The first messages from bureaucrats to Minister of Health Patty Hajdu never hinted at the possible magnitude of the pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

The slice of documents, prepared by various government departments and tabled with the Commons Health Committee on Wednesday evening, includes many of the first planning notes that informed the federal government’s response to COVID-19 in January and February.

They show that although the government had received repatriation of Canadians from China’s Hubei province and various cruise ships during this period, there was little talk of a possible pandemic.

Public health officials have questioned the accuracy of media reports in the city of Wuhan, Hubei, suggesting that the virus is spread through person-to-person contact.

“Based on the latest information we have, there is no clear evidence that the virus is easily spread between people,” said a January 19 information note prepared for Hajdu.

The documents also reveal that the government was reluctant to strictly control travelers arriving from Hubei, the region of China where the new coronavirus is believed to originate.

“Almost impossible” to stop COVID-19: the minister

According to the talking points prepared for a January 30 call with his provincial and territorial counterparts, Hajdu said preventing the virus from arriving in Canada was “almost impossible” due to the nature of travel around the world.

“What really matters is limiting its impact and controlling its spread once it has arrived,” said the talking point.

Three days later, the United States barred all non-citizens from China from entering the country.

Although there are information kiosks at major Canadian airports as of January 21, the decision to collect contact information for incoming Hubei travelers was not made until February 19 – information that could then be used by public health officials to follow up with people if an epidemic has emerged.

Scenes from a pandemic: passengers arrive at Calgary airport after being informed of the mandatory self-isolation rules on March 25, 2020. (CANADIAN PRESS)

Government relied on individuals to report themselves to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers if they developed flu-like symptoms, long after temperature monitoring measures were common in airports in Asia.

Between January 22 and February 18, 58,000 travelers arrived in Canada from China – 2,030 of them were from Hubei Province.

Only 68 were set aside for further assessment by a quarantine officer and only three passengers were actually reported for medical examination – the remaining 65 passengers were removed with a brochure.

It is impossible to know how many pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic passengers have been released in the general Canadian population.

Bureaucrats Warn About Mandatory Quarantines

On February 7, the government began recommending inbound Hubei passengers to self-isolate for 14 days to prevent transmission.

In an undated memo sent to Hajdu in mid-February, departmental officials warned that Canadians could question the effectiveness of “voluntary” self-isolation measures for these travelers.

But the memo says “there is no ability to enforce or enforce compliance” with a mandatory segregation order without the use of the Quarantine Act – a measure that the government would eventually promulgate weeks later.

The memo said it was best to leave all self-isolation measures voluntary to ensure there was “less pressure on public health resources”.

The memo said that public health officials did not have the capacity to quarantine passengers from China; At the time, 20,000 of these travelers arrived in Canada every week.

The Public Health Agency erased all references to China in brochures distributed to returning travelers from February 24, after it was clear that there was a community spread of COVID-19 in countries like the ‘Iran and Italy.

I think we have seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic.– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Calls between Hajdu and his provincial and territorial counterparts later in February focused on quarantine facilities for the return of Hubei travelers and cruise ships to Trenton and Belleville, but spoke little about how different jurisdictions would react if COVID-19 increased.

According to briefing notes for a February 10 appeal, Hajdu said that even if the country was in a “confinement phase, we cannot ignore what comes next.”

The note indicates that the Public Health Agency of Canada was “doing advanced thinking and scenario analysis, including a pandemic scenario”, but it is unclear whether these scenarios were actually discussed with the provinces and the territories during this call.

The pandemic has made N95 masks rare and coveted objects. (Michael Wilson / CBC)

Health Canada expected Hajdu to be pressured by the provinces regarding the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the call. The department then told him that there were “attempts” to secure devices like the N95 and surgical masks for the national stock, but “the deliveries have been staggered by the industry due to increasing market pressures” .

He said he only bought a “modest” amount of masks – much needed items a month later.

On February 26, when there were 78,000 cases of COVID-19 in mainland China, public health officials continued to advise Hajdu that “the risk to public health in Canada remains low.” A month later, there would be 1,000 cases in Ontario alone.

Even after the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in Canada began to increase in mid-February, the National Microbiology Laboratory of Canada in Winnipeg performed very few tests, most of which were for travelers from China. It is now understood that there was widespread transmission of the disease in Europe and in some American hotspots such as New York at the time.

As of February 17, the national laboratory had performed only 461 tests – a marginal increase from 367 tests the previous week.

By February 25, Ontario and British Columbia had provincial laboratories ready to test, but the rest of the provinces were still relying on samples to be sent to Winnipeg – a cumbersome process that made identification and identification difficult. isolation of cases in other provinces at first.

Countries “caught off guard”: Trudeau

When asked Thursday what was wrong with COVID-19 government planning, Trudeau replied that there would be time for reflection at a later date. He said he was confident that the government had made the “best decisions” with “the information we have”.

“I think we have seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic,” he said. “The challenges we have faced in ensuring the protection of Canadians are reflected in challenges around the world.

Watch: Trudeau Warns Canadians to Stay Vigilant

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said normal life for Canadians would not return until the development of a COVID-19 2:32

“I think Canada has done a good job in keeping a trajectory that will minimize as much as possible the reality we are in right now. Thinking back at the end of it, I’m sure people will say, “You could have done it a few days ago. “”


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