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

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

100 Women Who Care make a donation to Sylvan Lake Food Bank and Bethany Care Centre. Photo By Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News
100 Women Who Care donate to four Sylvan Lake groups

The Food Bank, Bethany Sylvan Lake, Community Partners and the Library all received a donation

RCMP. (Black Press File Photo)
Calgary man dies in two-vehicle collision near Sylvan Lake

A semi truck collided with a SUV just east of Hwy. 781 on Hwy 11.

Shaelynn Decock and her dog Taco, who has been missing since Aug. 26. Photo Submitted
Sylvan Lake woman looking for closure for her stolen dog

Shaelynn Decock says it has been two months since she last saw her dog Taco

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owners found

Father and son found him while out for a walk at JJ Collett

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner, left to right, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen arrive to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No-confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP

Most Read