Public health officials, politicians smug in their self-confidence failed Canadians

Cheif Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and federal Health Minister Patty Hadju

When the Wuhan virus outbreak is behind us, Canadian politicians and public health care officials will have to be held accountable for their incompetence.

It is clear from reading through their public pronouncements that they were overly confident about the country’s ability to contain the virus and its preparedness.

Back in late January, virtually every politician and health officer shared the idea that Canada, having gone through the 2003 SARS outbreak, was in a good position to battle the novel corona virus.

“I think there are lots of lessons learned from SARS, but the most important was, when we don’t understand a new infection and new outbreak, it’s much better to start with the highest level of precautions and work our way down,” as one physician put it.

The highest level of precautions, however, amounted to taking cautious travel histories from those travelers that presented themselves as being ill.

That was the extent of airport screening.

So while the outbreak was raging in China, authorities here were smug in their false confidence that having survived the SARS outbreak all would be well here in Canada.

In fact, no less a person than Dr. Theresa Tam said people arriving from Wuhan claiming that they do not feel any symptoms are not being screened closely for the virus.

“I don’t think it’ll be clinically or public-health-wise effective to test an asymptomatic person, showing no signs of symptoms, for the virus,” Tam said. “I think, even at that stage, if the person was affected but asymptomatic, the likelihood of being able to detect the virus is very low.”

Amazingly, travel to China was not being discouraged at this time. Airlines were reporting a brisk business ferrying passengers back and forth to China.

On Jan 25, health officials were still trying to assure Canadians all was well. Ontario Medical officers Eileen de Villa and David Williams said the risk in Canada remains low.

“We’re ready, we’re prepared,” Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said during a news conference.

Williams said the public health system is armed with the proper tools, such as quick turnarounds on lab tests and other detection methods that make the system more robust than it was in 2003 to handle an outbreak.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were in 2003,” he said.

He was not alone in that assessment. Dr. Theresa Tam said “there is no recommendation to wear a mask when you’re going about your daily regular activities.”

“I think first of all, just to reiterate that we have no confirmed cases of this virus in Canada,” Tam said. “And so I think also wearing masks when you’re well is not an effective measure and sometimes it can actually present some risk as you’re putting your fingers up and down your face, removing your mask.

The scientific consensus at the time was that the coronavirus was not easily transmitted between people.

“Ontarians can rest assured that the province’s integrated health-care system today is far more prepared to respond to any potential health risks than in the past,” said Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott. “We will continue to diligently monitor this issue to ensure that Ontario remains prepared to identify, contain and treat any additional cases of this virus.”

Mayor John Tory said “the risk to residents continues to remain low.”

By January 27, health officials were trying to track down 30 passengers to sat near a Wuhan virus patient.

As the Toronto Star reported:

Tam told reporters that airport protocols were followed when the man landed. She explained that arrival screens instruct passengers to inform border service officers if they’re sick after travelling to coronavirus-affected areas. Health screening questions are also asked when travellers use electronic customs kiosks at the three airports. A passenger who reports symptoms after travelling to an infected area is quarantined and medically assessed, Tam said, adding she did not currently see the need for more extreme airport protocols.

The system is working,” she said, referring to the patient’s example. “The person obviously got the information that they needed to enter the health system in a safe and responsible manner.” But asked repeatedly if the man had reported to Pearson airport authorities that he was experiencing symptoms, Tam suggested she didn’t know, noting the information about symptoms on the plane had been newly received Sunday morning after an interview with the patient.

This patient may have had some mild symptoms, certainly not something that would have been particularly obvious,” Tam said, adding her agency had received no report about the patient when he came through Pearson airport.

Neither federal Health Minister Patty Hadju or Dr. Tam knew the “enhanced” protocols were in place.

And what of the 30 fellow travelers?

Well, a lot of them had left the city apparently.

But Hadju told Canadians not to worry. “The risk is extremely low for Canadians,” she said, noting the virus is spread only through close contact. “There is no need for Canadians to be alarmed,”

That, of course, proved to be a case of whistling pass a graveyard.

Canadian authorities from the start were relying on travelers to self-identify. The “enhanced” screening amounted to little more than questionnaires or kiosk questions.

It’s little wonder that the virus took root in Canada.

At no point did health officials and their political masters understand the gravity of the situation.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, was of the view that the virus appeared no more dangerous than the common flu and that all cases outside China were travel related.

It was the consensus at the time.

There were those that did see this as a serious threat, however, and they called for an immediate ban on travel to and from China and other hot spots.

Those people were derided as racists and bigots.

It is hoped that when this outbreak is behind us that a public inquiry is held into how so many health officials got this wrong.

(Editor’s Note: This article is based on researching the Toronto Star’s archives from January 1, 2020 to March 9, 2020.)

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One thought on “Public health officials, politicians smug in their self-confidence failed Canadians

  1. Great article Alan! Maybe if the Health Minister was qualified for her position we could have expected a better outcome! Drama Teacher, Marketing Major? No one running this show has the necessary credentials!!


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