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

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

Submitted
BC VOTES 2020: John Rustad re-elected in Nechako Lakes riding

The result is based on preliminary vote count and the final results will be available after Nov.6

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. records 217 more COVID-19 cases, mask use urged

Infection spike continues, 21 senior facilities affected

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
L.A. Dodgers beat Rays 3-1 to win 1st World Series title since 1988

National League champs claim crown in six games

Seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was found dead in an apartment in Langley in July. (Langley Advance Times files)
Child’s body cold, no pulse: Off-duty cop testifies in Langley mother’s murder trial

The seven-year-old girl’s mother faces a first-degree murder charge

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Tyrell Giroux was arrested by Williams Lake RCMP on Sunday, Oct. 25. (Facebook video screenshot)
Tsilhqot’in leaders call for suspension of officers seen in controversial Williams Lake arrest

Disturbing video demands an immediate, independent investigation, says TNG

People march during a climate strike in Montreal, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Judge rejects 15 youths’ climate change lawsuit against Canadian government

Justice Michael Manson has granted the government’s motion to strike the plaintiffs’ claim

A woman walks through check in at WestJet at Pearson International airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Strong support for pre-flight COVID testing ahead of upcoming WestJet trial: YVR

Airport is partnering with UBC, which is helping choose the method of pre-flight testing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Most Read