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

Emily Harris (centre) started the in-person Monarch Moms meet-up groups in July, when it was much easier to physical distance in outdoor spaces. Harris started the group as a source of connection for women navigating the ups and downs of having a baby during a pandemic. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Victoria new mom group navigates challenges of motherhood in a pandemic

Monarch Moms meet once a week for physically-distanced connection

Joanne Smith has been visiting Goldstream Provincial Park since she moved to Langford two years ago. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
PHOTOS: Visitors flock to Goldstream Provincial Park for 2020 salmon run

‘I wanted to come here before I move back to Australia,’ says visitor

The Takaya inspired sculpture currently in Kent Laforme’s outdoor studio. The 25,000-pound piece of Vancouver Island marble could be installed on Cattle Point. (Kevin Murdoch Photo)
Stone Takaya sculpture could soon ‘howl’ at Cattle Point

Oak Bay inviting public suggestions for 25,000-pound marble sculpture

Royal Bay students are among the list of SD62 schools that will be trained by Pacific FC coaches and staff in a new soccer academy partnership. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
Pacific FC partners with Sooke School District soccer academies

Royal Bay, EMCS and Dunsmuir Middle students to receive professional training

Police closed McNeill Avenue after a workplace death Oct. 20, 2020. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Tree-pruning community gathers in Oak Bay after tragic death

Crews met in solidarity at site of Tuesday incident

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presents modelling of COVID-19 spread in B.C., March 25, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 203 new cases

up to 1,766 active cases in B.C., two more deaths

Advance polls are open from Oct. 15 to 21 with election day on Oct. 24. (Black Press Media file photo)
RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation load lobster traps on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., after launching its own self-regulated fishery on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Vancouver Island First Nations back Nova Scotia’s Indigenous lobster fishermen

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council calls for action before lives are lost

Skiers line up to start the Royal LePage Comox Valley Snow to Surf Adventure Relay Race. Photo by Tim Penney
Popular Comox Valley adventure race cancelled for 2021

COVID forces Comox Valley Royal LePage Snow to Surf Adventure Relay Race cancellation again

Reader’s Lens
Richard Ashton took this picturesque scene from Whiffin Spit looking toward the Salty Towers dock and East Sooke. To submit a photo to Reader’s Lens, please email editor@sookenewsmirror.com. (Contributed photo)
Reader’s Lens

Reader’s Lens Richard Ashton took this picturesque scene from Whiffin Spit looking… Continue reading

Most Read