Documents: government played catchup as COVID-19 threat mounted
This is a CBC podcast. Hello Jamie puzzle as Canada. Continues to fight to flatten. The Corona virus curve. More questions are being raised about. How prepared the federal government was to deal with this pandemic. That's been further called into question by a series of government briefing notes which show that well into March. The government believed Canada was at low risk free Kovic nineteen outbreak. The documents also revealed by early February health officials already knew the global market for masks was tightening fast. Canada was only able to scoop up a modest amount. Jp tasker is my colleague at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's been looking through these documents so I wanted to speak to him about what he's learned. And how those early government responses got us to where we are now. This is from firm. Hey JP great to have you back pay. Jamie thanks for having me back. Don't look even digging through these documents. So let's start with them. What are they. What are these documents yes? So a whole whack of documents were tabled with the House of Commons Health Committee. Last week we are meeting today. Entirely virtually for the purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government's response to the caveat nineteen pandemic The committee had ordered the production of these planning documents Just before they rose earlier last month they want to get a handle on what the government was actually doing in January and February to plan for this Cova nineteen crisis so these are briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats across a number of departments in the federal government and the Public Health Agency of Canada Health Canada Transport Canada the National Defense Department And really their documents that reveal a government that was slow to act a government that was relying on federal public health officials that routinely downplayed the severity of the virus who said up until March ten. Th that the risk of transmission in Canada was low. The risk is low because we don't have incredible community transmission and Dr. Tamas very clear that when that begins to happen we will know even when the case load in. China was exploding even while travel between our two countries was continuing unabated really for weeks weeks weeks and they maintained all along that the risk of transmission here in Canada was low even when there was a this was starting to impact countries beyond China Iran in Italy and into the US right March tenth. That was just over one month ago just to put that in perspective. So I wanted to do this. Chronologically with you Let's start in January right so we're in mid-january what we're bureaucrats telling. Health Minister Patty. Hi Do then about how this virus was spread and how much of a risk it might pose to Canadians. Maintaining that the risk to Canadians was low and they were downplaying media reports out of Wuhan Obey Province in China. You know the hot spot where we know this Corona virus or at least we think we know where this corona virus started and they were putting reports that stated that this was likely being transmitted through human to human contact. This is being spread. Easily between people in Wuhan. Human to human transmission has not been ruled out. And that's a problem because this week marks. The official beginning of China's busiest travel season. Chinese health officials confirmed the virus could spread so they were trying to warn ministers not to get caught up in some of the media reports that were coming out of China. That suggested this could be much more dangerous than we thought it to be. You know they were saying that. Let's be careful. Let's follow the World Health Organization's advice on all this but the thing is as early as January twenty eight. Th the World Health Organization was describing the wrist to be high at the global level very high in China but also high for the rest of the globe but the bureaucrats here in Canada maintained. It was still low. I'm declaring a public emergency of international concern. Changing it does not change it all Canadians Obviously It is low because partly Travel to inform the effect of greed affected region from China's becoming more difficult. And of course we have a very sophisticated system here in Canada which has been noted by the way by the World Health Organization the reluctant to impose travel restrictions reluctant to impose airport screening on inbound. Chinese pastors reluctant to demand mandatory quarantine for passengers. Arriving from these global hotspots. Because they said that just wouldn't work and really what they had to count on his limiting its impact once it got here. Why did they say that? They didn't think it would work. Screening at airports side targeting passengers coming from China did without ever explained in any of these documents. Well he just didn't think he'd be effective and they didn't think that because global travel is so global is you know it's there are so many people arriving from around the globe every single day in this country. They didn't think it would be prudent to have to put in some really stringent measures at the border. And they're also really worried that it would overwhelm public health officials here in this country. They thought if they had to quarantine people arriving from China the public health officials just wouldn't have the capacity to monitor them so they really were just relying on people being good citizens you know to avoid contact other people to follow up with their medical doctors. That are health professionals. If they had any symptoms of this disease they're handing out some pamphlets Starting in February but they were reluctant to go that step further. It's interesting you talk about this around this time end of January. I know we had our first case here. In Canada January twenty fifth his fifties had flown out of Wuhan on. The twenty-first arrived in Toronto on the twenty second and was in Sunnybrook. Hospital was symptoms on the twenty third patient was detected and immediately put in isolation and I remember that the discourse around was very much that Canada has this under control That we test for this virus because we had the sequence from China nineteen other patients are being tested for the new strain in Ontario alone but officials say the risk of an outbreak in Canada remains low. And I think there are risks of contracting other viruses. That are here in Canada that we know a lot about that. That are much higher. I also remember around this time on January twenty second Doctor Kamran Khan and infectious disease specialist Here in Toronto came on the show and he was actually really concerned about what he was seeing in China including the fact that there was a proliferation of the virus. Either two weeks after the market closed so to me that basically said okay. The outbreak has moved into a new phase. It's no longer animals to humans. It's now humans to humans And so for me. That was the point of This is kind of the real deal here. And there was a case popping up in the United States and I distinctly remember him saying that there were a lot of parallels here to stars in that he was already at this level where he was very concerned because it seemed like there was transmission between humans. And that that transmission where we didn't totally know at that time you know how infectious it was. It seemed like it was relatively infectious. You know this is rapidly propagating person to person the dispersion to other parts of mainland China. So there were there. Were people in this country sounding the alarm bell around this time right Jesse any of that in the documents will yeah just to that. Sars point we know that the death toll of covert nineteen surpassed SARS as early as February ninth. I mean it came about seven hundred. Seventy three people killed from SARS By February ninth. There was over eight hundred for covert nineteenth. We knew that this was a deadly disease very early on but no in these documents there are not many public health officials. Warning that it could get to that level there is almost no instance of pandemic planning in these documents. It's mentioned once early in a call on February tenth between Patty. Hide you and the provincial and territorial health ministers. She suggests that the Public Health Agency of Canada is working on some pandemic scenarios. Or if this escalates. They're going to have some plans in place but she doesn't actually mention those on. The calls doesn't actually brief the provincial and territorial ministers as to what the feds are working on at that point and we know that that's one of the things we learned from SARS that there was not good communication between the federal government and the provinces when this thing hit back in two thousand two in two thousand and three there wasn't great communications between the various levels of government in this country and it seems that that continued in this case as well because the provinces are asking minister. Heidi okay what are we GONNA do? Esl How we going to plan for this and there doesn't seem to be a lot of details other than to say. Oh we're working on it. There's something that might be coming if this does evolve. Okay I just wanted to talk about a peace came recently from her colleague. Murray Brewster Also talking about information that the Canadian government was getting from a unit within Canada's military intelligence agency around this time back in January. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Yes so there's a medical intelligence cell in the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command Unit tracks pandemic in global health concerns looking at them through the Lens of how they affect military deployments. So this sell you know was monitoring the progress of the outbreak in China. And they thought that it could be a lot worse than they were expecting at that time and they had that intelligence ready for people in government. It's reasonably clear. The Canadian warnings made it to the chief of the defence staff and the defense minister and they had that intelligence ready for people in government. And it doesn't seem to have made much of a difference on how they were planning on responding to covert nineteen did become increasingly more concerning and of course we know some reporting out of the United States Like a similar unit in the US as you mentioned was talking about how China's leadership knew. The outbreak was out of control and the crucial information was being withheld from foreign governments and public health agencies at this time. I know this according to reporting from ABC apparently made its way into like trump's intelligence briefings in January. And I guess the idea here is that these agencies normally do share information between each other but it wasn't until late January that president trump made his first public comments about this virus saying that he wasn't at all worried about it and that he had it totally under control so there are questions around got his well. Obviously I WANNA move into February as reports continued to come in more and more cases all over the world. How does the federal government respond so really the focus at this point is getting people out of Wuhan and out of China so they start to send all these rescue planes couple of them to the region to repatriate them to bring them home to bring Canadians back from this hot spot hoping to have this families back on on Friday we understand for loved ones here in Canada? Performance over there that it's extremely difficult. All of government approach at this time is really focused on them. It's also focused on getting Canadians. Who WERE STUCK ONBOARD? The diamond Princess cruise ship home so they sent a chartered plane to pick those up and bring them home by mid February but they also started to turn their attention to. Maybe we should do something about all these passengers coming from China. Who are arriving at Canadian. Airports maybe we should do something more than just. Have an information screen up in the arrivals hall of Drew Pearson Airport. Maybe we should take this to the next level. And what they did is they started asking all the inbound ooh Bay travelers to provide some personal contact information that started on February nineteenth But what's most troubling? Is that between January. Twenty seconds so the end of January and February eighteenth before this contact tracing Was implemented at our airports fifty eight thousand travelers from China arrived here in Canada and two thousand of them were from Ebay province but only sixty eight of the people who arrived in that time were pulled aside for a secondary screening with the quarantine officer and only three only three. A fifty eight thousand travellers were actually flagged for a medical exam and it now. It's revealed these documents at the secondary screening. Was Essentially. Another question on those little kiosk. When you come to the airport you know they are asking. Did you arrive from WHO Bay province? Yes no it does seem from what you're saying. According to these documents that you know at this point they're just sort of talking about how to manage what they think is probably inevitable here and still like a low risk. So are they talking about that in the documents or are they talking about how to prepare for the cases are they talking about whether or not? They have enough personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Like masks you know. What are they talking about about how prepared there is so patty? Hi Do jumps on a call with provincial and territorial counterparts in that month and the bureaucrats know ahead of this call then. She's going to be pressed by the provinces on the personal protective equipment bit of all this because the PPA is just so important to the frontline workers but the public health agency of Canada had warned her at the time that they really didn't have a lot of success procuring. Any of this people eat. It was very difficult to get their hands on those end. Ninety five mask get surgical masks to add to the national stockpile. They were saying that what the issue was is that industry at the time were staggering the deliveries of these mass because of the global demand. But it doesn't show that there was much of an effort made on the part of government to do what we now know that we're doing now starting up. Some domestic supply chains to produce some of these things. Ottawa also says Canadian companies are making PP from locally sourced materials like construction industry house. Wrap an automobile air bags to keep our frontline workers safe and care for Canadians with Kovic. Nineteen we need. A sustainable stable supply of these products aren't needs making limit. Home is there. Wasn't there obviously again was not that sense of urgency. To get those end ninety five and surgical mask stockpiles built up so when she jumped on the call with the provinces she mentioned that there's been a modest amount of masked procured in the last number of weeks And keep maintaining up until February twenty six that the risk is low. At this point we know there are seventy eight thousand Cases in mainland China but the issue too is there was no testing or very little testing. They only done four hundred sixty one tests by February seventeenth. We now know there's been tens of thousands of cases and all the scientists pointing to widespread. Testing is the best way to stop the spread of this disease where we can find people in isolate them right but they did not ramp up those efforts they were having trouble with the P P procurement and they just were not running enough tests and of course we know now You know efforts made to secure P. Of course like you know. Bauer is making face shields hearing Canada but also our colleague. David Cochran has the story about how we've essentially been able to create our own supply line in China. We just you know. Basically made this a priority and move diplomats around China and now we're starting to get those masks and and the equipment that is needed. You know you mentioned and February in all the cases in China at this time but you know. Italy was also exploding around this time. Eight hundred twenty cases twenty deaths. Bayardo gave the hope next week. They managed to solve the problem because the restaurants are empty. The cafes are empty. Trams and trains are empty. I don't know how long we can cope with the situation. My Iran had one hundred and thirty nine cases and February nineteen. That's the deputy health minister. He's got the virus and he was involved in the most extraordinary press conference here. He is on the left taking his glasses off mopping his brow looking decidedly unwell. He was telling those who'd gathered that he doesn't believe in quarantine that is an old measure from World War. One that doesn't work here. The man on the stage may have had a view on that. There was a lot of news at the time. I remember that you know the the Iranian government was downplaying what what's happening the WHO upgraded the risk of the viruses global threat to very high. And I think this is a reality check for every government on the planet. Wake up get ready. This may be on. Its Way and you need to be ready so in these documents. Are you seeing? Government officials talking about the situation outside of China particularly in Italy in Iran. Yes they document the number of people that had covert nineteen abroad so they have those numbers available the minister to review but there isn't a lot of analysis and there isn't a lot of discussion as to what the other countries are doing in terms of preparedness and what lessons we could learn from them to apply here in Canada because we know by February twenty third. The South Korean president had put his country on the highest alert Taiwan. I mean after all. This is said. We're going to look to Taiwan as the country. That did this asked because they took such decisive action. You know they were ones that were really you know they start screen arrivals coming from China coming from Iran coming from Italy coming from other parts of Asia you know. They had the comprehensive testing rolled out. They had detailed contact. Tracing in these documents late February early March is anybody talking about quarantines they do. They mentioned it as a way to address passengers arriving from China but they rule it out. They thought it would be best for people just to stay at home and do it without having to use the mechanisms of government. They didn't want to put that pressure on the public health resources in this country they. They just thought the best way to do. It was handled some of these pamphlets. Tell them you know you should sell vice late at home for fourteen days. But there was nothing backing that up. They weren't enforcing it through law. They were enforcing it through regulation. They were hoping that people would follow that guidance. So let's move then to what feels like an one eighty right like he was a government that for many months was talking about you know need for widespread quarantines no need for closing borders and then all of a sudden we start to see around middle of March essentially like an about face right on March sixteenth the federal government closes the border to all foreign nationals except Americans. We assured you that as the situation evolved our response would evolve to as the virus continues it spread. We've decided to take increasingly aggressive steps to keep you and your family safe candidate in the US. Also close our borders. Domestic flights are restricted in. What does that say to you? I mean I wanNA take you back to March thirteenth when Dr Teresa. Tam Recommends that Canadians not pursue non-essential travel outside of Canada. This means we during vacations going to sporting and entertainment events large international conferences on that very day. The prime minister is asked to bow closing the border with China and. He says that we didn't go that route. We were able to manage it in a way that that allowed for control and a non non spread of the virus that gives us confidence and March sixteenth. Everything changes so it's it's you get whiplash you know when you think about all this because the advice changes so dramatically in such a short time frame. It really is cause for concern. Why did the Public Health Agency of Canada? Not feel the need to warn the government and the ministers responsible for implementing policy earlier than this. Jp How public health experts Seeta may maybe those? That aren't sort of in the center of the decision. Making Nexus how they responded to these documents and two candidates preparedness for this crisis in in recent days. Yeah so we've heard people come out. Who said we were just not prepared. We were caught flat-footed Sandy Buckman. Who's the president of the Canadian? Medical Association came out last week. And said you know we were just not ready for a pandemic? The federal government did not prepare this country to deal with this sort of thing. I see how prepared we are militarily. You know our army is ready to go at any time. We have adequate equipment The same should be true for dealing with the pandemic. We didn't start pulse efficient equipment. We weren't ready and hence the incredible effort. That's being made right now. The the front line the people who were working on the front lines of doctors and nurses and the people that were dealing with some of these early cove in nineteen cases were telling provincial health officials. We're just not prepared. Were scared so they are definitely making it known that they along had concerns about the whole planning process and the federal government. The federal public health officials were kind of turning a blind idol that maintaining this fiction which we know is a fiction now that the risk to Canadians was low. Although I you know I think it is probably fair to mention here that we took some very aggressive measures in Mitch March but we haven't seen our hospitals overrun like other countries at this at this point and I think we just we don't know yet but it does seem like we have had some success at least with these social distancing measures particularly in provinces like BBC. I'm starting to see some some Glimmers of hope if we will that with flattened note we are increase. Our trajectory has has leveled off a bit Although I think what is emerging in Canada right now which is very clear is is the the tragedy that's happening and long-term care homes now fifty percent of the deaths that we're seeing. This country are from long term care homes. It feels like that issue in and of itself are so much to them into any questions to ask their not as citizens. What kind of accountability do you think we need to be asking for from the Federal Government even in the midst of this ongoing crisis you know? Some people might say look like this. Is the government trying to make decisions in real time? This is sort of the fog of war right easy to kind of sit here. In hindsight at those days the numbers of Canadians infected were still low but we saw the potential that we are in right now and we started to act early. We can say safely. Is that in January. If we had told everybody to stay at home and not go to work that there would have been quite a lot of Disbelief by Canadians. But this would be an appropriate measure absolutely hospitals haven't been overrun and things aren't looking as grim as they might be in some other jurisdictions but go back to Taiwan they have to vote three hundred seventy six cases because they took aggressive action. We're what well over twenty thousand cases I think it's important. You know when I wrote this story last week there were a number of people inside and outside of government who were critical you know. They say this undermined public health response. You know somehow suggesting this sort of reporting is unpatriotic or or just not being very helpful. I say it's the opposite. I think stories like these. They should encourage or officials to change. Course if necessary to be more dynamic in the response to this global pandemic the people who lead us into all this are the ones that were trusting to lead us out and I think that has that they have to change. Course if changing course is necessary in stories like this illuminate. What happens when you don't take early action when you don't take action when it might be necessary to do so you can have deadly consequences? We can lose so many of those folks you were talking about in long term care homes because we didn't adequately prepare for those scenarios because they didn't get that P and made February because they didn't have masks and gloves on hands for the workers in those long term care homes. We're seeing what happens when they don't and so. I think it's necessary that we shed light on this sort of thing. All right cheap tasker. Thank you so much as always. Thanks Amy all right so before we go today. J. P. of I spoke about issues here in Canada with testing some news on that front on Monday health. Canada has now approved a new rapid test for the corona virus and it can produce results in under an hour. The test is made by an Ottawa based company. And it's expected to alleviate pressure on labs because uses this hand-held device it's also expected to be one of the solutions for testing kit shortages. The head of the company that produces these tests says they'll be able to ship ten thousand a week now and in three to four months. One hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. He says. The company is being inundated with requests including from private companies who want to test employees as the facilitate back toward plans. We'll keep you posted on this front. That's all for today though. Thanks so much for listening to front burner and talk. T- soon for more. Cbc PODCASTS GO TO CBC DOT CA slash podcasts.