A health-care worker sprays a woman’s hand with disinfectant as she waits to be tested for COVID-19 at a testing clinic in Montreal, Sunday, October 4, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A health-care worker sprays a woman’s hand with disinfectant as she waits to be tested for COVID-19 at a testing clinic in Montreal, Sunday, October 4, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

SARS was ‘dress rehearsal for COVID-19’ but Canada failed health-care workers: report

Canada’s infection rate among health-care workers is four times that of China, the report says

Canada put health-care workers at risk of contracting COVID-19 and taking it home to their families because it failed to learn lessons from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003, a new report says.

Mario Possamai, who authored the report and was senior adviser to a two-year commission on SARS, outlines multiple shortcomings by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The agency was established to respond to emerging infectious diseases after an early recommendation by the commission investigating how the SARS epidemic that killed 44 people arrived in Canada and spread, mostly in Ontario.

Hundreds of people died of SARS elsewhere, including in China and Taiwan. However, Possamai says in the report released Monday that unlike Canada, those countries heeded the warnings from SARS, which he calls “a dress rehearsal for COVID-19.”

“In COVID-19, Canada is witnessing a systemic, preventable failure to learn from the 2003 SARS outbreak,” he says. “It is a failure to both adequately prepare and to urgently respond in a manner that is commensurate with the gravest public health emergency in a century.”

Possamai says in the report, titled “A Time of Fear: How Canada Failed Our Health-Care Workers and Mismanaged COVID-19,” that the safety of workers, from those in long-term care homes to respiratory technicians and nurses and doctors in hospitals, has been ignored.

It says union sources suggest 16 workers died of the pandemic, though official reports put the number at 12 deaths.

Canada’s infection rate among health-care workers is four times that of China, the report says.

READ MORE: Canadians with COVID-19 or caring for those with it can apply for federal money today

While other countries, including the United States, have fared worse than Canada in containing COVID-19, they managed to escape SARS and did not have the opportunity to learn from it, Possamai says in the report, which was commissioned by the Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Unions to evaluate the first wave of the pandemic.

“A significant systemic problem during COVID-19, as it was during SARS, is that health-care workers and unions were not seen by governments and public health agencies as collaborative partners in setting safety guidelines and procedures,” Possamai says, adding that is still the case as parts of Canada enter a second wave of the disease.

The Public Health Agency of Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Possamai says precious time was wasted as infections among health-care workers rose and the so-called precautionary principle, which aims to reduce risk of infection without waiting for scientific certainty, was not adopted as a lesson from the SARS commission.

Questions about whether COVID-19 was airborne resulted in some health-care workers being denied N95 respirators in place of surgical masks and other personal protective equipment has also been lacking. The report says that was not the case in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which also endured SARS.

Possamai makes several recommendations, including that federal, provincial and territorial governments pass legislation requiring their chief medical health officers to report annually on the state of their jurisdiction’s public health emergency preparedness and for the top doctors in each jurisdiction to be empowered to make recommendations addressing any shortcomings.

He also calls for the addition of occupational hygienists as well as safety and aerosol experts to the Public Health Agency of Canada and for provincial health and for provincial labour ministries to act independently from health ministries to enforce workplace health and safety measures.

READ MORE: Canada’s top doctor gives tips for COVID-safe Thanksgiving amid high daily cases

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said it was only after pressure from nurses and doctors and ultimately from federal Health Minister Patti Hadju in February that the public health agency began weekly calls with the health sector, including psychologists and dentists, on guidelines.

However, she said unions are still not involved in developing those guidelines and how they should be used in practice. ”That’s the gist of the mistake,” Silas said.

“It is always a joint responsibility between the employer and the union,” she said of occupational health and safety issues.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, past president of the Canadian Medical Association who finished his one-year term in August, said he worked as a family doctor in Mississauga, Ont., during the SARS outbreak and remembers lining up to get into a hospital before being screened and wearing personal protective equipment when seeing patients.

The level of anxiety among health-care workers now is no comparison to that outbreak, Buchman said, adding he was shocked to learn Canada did not have enough personal protective equipment for a pandemic after the SARS commission recommended to stockpile it.

“What can I say? It’s still kind of incomprehensible to me that we weren’t prepared for a pandemic when it was a such a thorough report,” he said of the commission’s findings, which were released in 2007.

“My sense was, and it still is, that somehow the government expected front-line workers to put themselves in harm’s way, without having adequate PPE. It’s like expecting a firefighter to go into a burning building without the proper equipment to protect them.”

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusHealthcare

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Pnina Benyamini strikes a yoga pose. (Photo submitted)
Many facets to energetic woman’s legacy

Benyamini taught yoga, belly dancing and more to an adoring public

FILE – British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry wears a face mask as she views the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Masks now mandatory in all public indoor and retail spaces in B.C.

Many retailers and businesses had voiced their frustration with a lack of mask mandate before

Island Health’s acting medical health officer for the central Island says schools are very safe, even after COVID-19 exposure at five schools in Nanaimo-Ladysmith this month. (File photo)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith and Qualicum superintendents ask Island Health about COVID-19 safety at schools

Central Island medical health officer answers questions parents have been asking

North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP have ruled out fouled play in the death of a woman in Chemainus. (Black Press file photo)
No foul play in death of woman in Chemainus

Police officers make determination after an investigation

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

(Black Press Media files)
B.C. to test emergency alert system on cell phones, TVs, radios on Wednesday

The alert is part of a twice yearly test of the national Alert Ready system

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

Phillip Tallio was just 17 when he was convicted of murder in 1983 (file photo)
Miscarriage of justice before B.C. teen’s 1983 guilty plea in girl’s murder: lawyer

Tallio was 17 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his 22-month-old cousin

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
41 positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Firefighters try to put out a structure fire on the Island Highway in Nanoose Bay early Saturday morning. (Nanoose Bay Volunteer Fire Department photo)
Horses in nearby stable saved as building burns down in Nanoose Bay

Firefighters called out in the early-morning hours Saturday

Brenda Schroeder thought she was reading it wrong when she won $100,000 from a Season’s Greetings Scratch & Win. (Courtesy BCLC)
New home on the agenda after scratch ticket win in Saanich

Victoria woman set to share her $100,000 Season’s Greetings lottery win

Most Read