A flu season that started early, hospitalized far more children than usual and overwhelmed emergency departments has revealed that Canada’s healthcare system is chronically underfunded when it comes to the most vulnerable citizens, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist says.
Dr. Jesse Papenburg, who works at Montreal Children’s Hospital, said a system that was already struggling with a surge of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, on the heels of COVID-19 is now overwhelmed in much of the country.
“Certainly, Ontario and Alberta in particular have been hit very hard with an early and really quite explosive influenza season in pediatrics when it comes to more severe disease requiring complex hospitalization. And we’re also observing in Montreal as well that our influenza admissions are really starting to pick up,” he said.
The last week of November saw the highest number of pediatric hospitalizations for a single week in the past decade, said Papenburg, who is also an investigator for IMPACT, a program that monitors hospitalizations for vaccine-preventable diseases at 12 children’s hospitals across the country.
A typical flu season sees about 1,000 kids admitted to hospital. Due to pandemic public health measures, he said last season saw only 400 and there were none the season before that.
Up to the end of November, over 700 children had been hospitalized with the H3N2 strain of the flu, which typically takes a toll on older adults. But the season could continue until March or April, Papenburg said of the unexpected epidemic.
“When you’re already stretched to the limit under normal circumstances and there’s something exceptional that takes place, it really has a greater impact on the type of care that we can deliver to Canadian children,” he said. “It’s unacceptable, in my view, that this is happening, that we are having to delay important surgeries for children because we need those resources for dealing with acute respiratory infections.”
While the number of RSV hospitalizations is stabilizing, there’s still a “significant burden of disease requiring complex hospitalization,” he said of the Montreal hospital.
Alex Munter, president of Ottawa pediatric hospital CHEO, said the Red Cross will be helping take some of the pressure off critical-care staff starting this week.
He said two teams of nine people will work rotating overnight shifts and that some will be porters while others get supplies or sit with patients.
“Having these Red Cross teams on-site will allow us to send back redeployed staff to their home base,” he said.
“The test positivity rate last week for flu was 30 per cent compared to 10 per cent at the end of October. That’s a big increase and it’s still climbing so flu hospitalizations are increasing and RSV is plateauing,” Munter said.
CHEO, including its emergency department and urgent care clinic, is also getting help from pediatricians, family doctors and nurses in the community while some patients are being transferred to adult hospitals, Munter said.
“We can’t run our hospital this way in perpetuity. I think the moral of the story here is that we have undersized child and youth health system in Canada.”
SickKids in Toronto continues to see high patient volumes in the pediatric intensive care unit and since November has reduced the number of surgeries so staff can be redeployed to provide care in that unit.
“We have been co-ordinating closely with other hospital partners that have the ability to care for some pediatric patients,” the hospital said in a statement, adding it is not currently seeking staffing support from external organizations.
Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room doctor at both the Stollery Children’s Hospital and Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, said a temporary closure of a pediatric hospice in Calgary is “tragic” as staff are being diverted to a children’s hospital.
“It means that kids who are dying are not getting the palliative and comfort care that they deserve and need, and that acute care is taking priority over that,” Mithani said.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has said Ottawa recently gave provinces an additional $2 billion as calls grow for both levels of government to do more to help hospitals facing unprecedented challenges.
Mithani said funding has to be targeted for children’s hospitals and could also go to staffing after-hours clinics, for example.
She said people planning large indoor gatherings over Christmas and for New Year’s Eve should consider scaling back, while schools should transition to temporary online learning if they have a large number of viral illnesses
Health officials also need to make a concerted effort to educate the public on the importance of vaccination amid misinformation on social media, Mithani said.
“The most vulnerable people in our society are suffering as a result of the decisions that adults made. That’s what’s happening here, that kids are suffering from the poor decisions of adult decision-makers who can’t seem to do the right thing in order to protect our kids.”
— With files from Jordon Omstead in Toronto
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2022.
This story is produced with the financial assistance of The Canadian Medical Association. It has no say in editorial choices.
Alberta Justice spokespeople deliver duelling statements on prosecutor email review
An email probe into whether Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s office interfered with Crown prosecutors took a confusing turn Friday after two government spokespeople delivered duelling statements that raised questions over how far back the search went.
The review was ordered by Smith a week ago to respond to allegations in a CBC story that reported a staffer in the premier’s office emailed prosecutors last fall to question decisions and direction on cases stemming from a blockade at the Canada-U. S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
The Justice Department said Monday it had done a four-month search of ingoing, outgoing and deleted emails and found no evidence of contact.
Two days later, Alberta Justice communications director Charles Mainville said in a statement that deleted emails are wiped from the system after 30 days, meaning the search for deleted emails may not have covered the entire time period in question.
On Thursday night, Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, a spokesman for Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, responded to questions about Mainville’s statement. He said while emails are deleted after 30 days, they live on in the system for another 30 and could have been checked that far back by investigators.
“For example, if an email was deleted on Oct. 17, 2022, the email would no longer be accessible to the user as of Nov. 16, 2022, but would continue to be available to our investigation team until Dec. 16, 2022,” said Lecavalier-Kidney in his statement.
A 60-day search would have stretched back to late November, capturing all but the first six weeks of Smith’s United Conservative Party government. Smith was sworn in as premier on Oct. 11.
But while Lecavalier-Kidney’s statement said investigators could go back 60 days, it did not state that they did so, leaving confusion on how far back they went.
When asked Friday to clarify whether investigators went back 30 or 60 days on the deleted emails, Lecavalier-Kidney did not respond to questions while Mainville reissued the original statements in an email.
The government has also delivered conflicting messages on who was investigated in the review.
Smith promised that emails from all Crown prosecutors and the 34 staffers in her office would be checked.
However, the Justice Department later said emails between “relevant” prosecutors and Smith staffers were checked. It did not say how it determined who was relevant.
The Coutts blockade and COVID-19 protest at the border crossing last year saw RCMP lay charges against several people, ranging from mischief to conspiracy to commit murder.
Smith has said she did not direct prosecutors in the Coutts cases and the email review exonerated her office from what she called “baseless” allegations in the CBC story.
The CBC has said that it has not seen the emails in question but stands by its reporting.
The Opposition NDP said questions stemming from the CBC story, coupled with multiple conflicting statements from the premier on what she has said to Justice Department officials about the COVID-19 cases, can only be resolved through an independent investigation.
Smith has given six versions in recent weeks of what she has said to justice officials about COVID-19 cases.
Smith has said she talked to prosecutors directly and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She has said she reminded justice officials of general prosecution guidelines, but at other times reminded them to consider factors unique to COVID-19 cases. She has also suggested the conversations are ongoing and that they have ended.
She has attributed the confusion to “imprecise” word choices.
Smith has long been openly critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning if they were needed to fight the pandemic and labelling them intolerable violations of personal freedoms.
She has also called those unvaccinated against COVID-19 the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime.
Last fall, Smith said charges in the cases were grounded in politics and should be open to political solutions. But she recently said it’s important to let the court process play out independently.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.
Trudeau government dropped the ball on fighting abuse in sport, former minister says
A Liberal MP and former sport minister is again calling for a public inquiry into abuse in sport — and is accusing her own government of not doing enough to tackle the problem.
Kirsty Duncan said the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to build momentum behind her efforts to prevent harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport in the years after she left cabinet — despite knowing a lot about the problem well before Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault allegations exploded in the news last year.
Duncan said she even faced “pushback” from people within her own government when she made tackling abuse a top priority of her time as sport minister.
Duncan said she would not identify the individuals who resisted her efforts, or state whether they were in her own office or other government departments.
“It should not be a fight. I’m asking for the protection of athletes and children. There should never have been pushback,” Duncan told CBC News in an exclusive interview.
“I will not stand idly by while there are athletes, children and young people hurting in this country. And I do not accept the status quo. And if I do not push for an inquiry, it means accepting the status quo. And I will not be complicit.”
On Thursday, Duncan announced she’s taking medical leave effective immediately on the advice of doctors to deal with a physical health challenge.
Duncan was not re-appointed to cabinet by Trudeau after the 2019 election. She was instead appointed deputy House leader for the government.
Trudeau dropped the position of sport minister from cabinet at the time and folded Duncan’s responsibilities into the portfolio of the heritage minister, Steven Guilbeault.
Guilbeault’s ministerial mandate letter — which outlined his key policy objectives — charged him with fostering a culture of safe sport.
In response to questions from CBC about the progress Guilbeault made on that mandate, his office pointed to a Sport Canada timeline of safe sport initiatives in the country.
The department launched a call for proposals to implement a new independent safe sport mechanism in 2020. In July 2021, Guilbeault announced that the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) would receive up to $2.1 million to set up a new mechanism to oversee implementation of a new universal code of conduct in sport.
A senior government source with knowledge of Guilbeault’s portfolio concedes “other priorities required more attention” when he was heritage minister. Guilbeault’s legislative priorities at the time including confronting online abuse, digital streaming regulation and copyright reform.
The source, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of confidentiality, said the department’s priorities shifted when the pandemic hit in March 2020, just four months after Guilbeault was appointed minister. The source said they “totally understand” Duncan’s claim that more could have been done on safe sport.
“Since 2016, our government has worked with the sport community to advance a respectful sport culture and respond to calls for action,” Guilbeault’s office wrote in an email to CBC News.
Duncan said she felt her safe sport initiatives were not given the attention they deserved after she left the office.
“There was nothing in place. There was literally nothing. There didn’t even seem to be policies. Some had policies, some didn’t,” she said. “Where was the oversight? Where was the accountability?
“I think what we’ve seen over the last four years, and we’ve certainly seen this summer, is that there remains a hugely disappointing resistance to change.”
Current Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge was asked about Duncan’s claim that the government isn’t doing enough to protect athletes in the country.
“I can tell you that we’re taking it extremely seriously,” she told CBC News.
“That’s why we’ve invested $16 million in the last budget just to create the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, because we felt it was so important to have that independent mechanism. I’m also making it mandatory for all nationally funded organizations to sign up with those before the next funding cycle.
“So any organization that hasn’t protected their athletes by signing up with OSIC will no longer receive the whole funding. That’s the strongest tool that I have. So yes, we are taking this extremely, extremely seriously.”
Just weeks after Duncan was named sport minister in January 2018, an investigation by CBC News revealed that at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports over 20 years had been convicted of sex offences involving over 600 victims under age 18.
Duncan — a former gymnast who said she experienced emotional and psychological abuse herself as an athlete — said she was shaken by that report.
She introduced a number of measures — “broad strokes,” she calls them now — such as a third-party investigation unit and a national toll-free confidential helpline for victims and witnesses of abuse in sport. She also brought territorial and provincial sport ministers together in February 2019 to sign a declaration aimed at tackling and preventing harassment, abuse and discrimination in sport.
“I knew I had to address the grassroots. That’s where most athletes will spend their life,” Duncan said.
“Safe sport needs to be on every federal, provincial, territorial meeting year after year after year, with real goals and deliverables. I talked a lot about numbers. How can we address a problem if we don’t know what that problem looks like?”
Reluctance in government
In the 2019 federal budget, the government committed $30 million over five years “to enable Canadian sports organizations to promote accessible, ethical, equitable and safe sports.”
But Duncan says there was a climate of resistance to policies she was introducing, both within and outside the government.
“I don’t think people understood the problem. There wasn’t a lot of interest in Parliament. I asked what we were doing and I was told that we had to stop this safe sport stuff and get back to what sport was really about,” she said, referring to celebrating sporting achievements.
“My answer was, ‘So not protecting children?'”
CBC News reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office but they declined to comment.
Duncan said a three-page letter sent by Hockey Canada to one of her senior policy advisers reflects the tone of the opposition she faced.
The letter, first reported by the Canadian Press, was written by Glen McCurdie, then Hockey Canada’s vice-president of insurance and risk management. In it, McCurdie expressed concern about some of the policies Duncan was pursuing, including the third-party investigation unit.
Duncan said she never saw the letter four years ago and only read it for the first time this past summer, when the Hockey Canada controversy was playing out.
“Hockey Canada does not wish to be encumbered by a system or process that ties our hands and does not allow us to manage a situation as we deem necessary. We are simply asking that you keep this in mind as you continue to lead us in a collective Safe Sport strategy,” McCurdie wrote in the letter, which was also obtained by CBC News.
Duncan said she was frustrated in 2019 by Hockey Canada’s reluctance and remains just as frustrated today.
“Hockey Canada pushed back against a third party investigator and a safe sport helpline. Who would do that?” she said. “Who wouldn’t want a child to be able to pick up a phone and say, ‘I’ve had a problem’?
“I think people want to sweep this under the rug. I think people want to move on. And we can’t.”
In an email to CBC, Hockey Canada said the 2019 letter does not reflect the organization’s current thinking or direction.
“Hockey Canada recognizes that we need to do more to foster a safe and positive environment for all participants on and off the ice,” the organization wrote.
Hockey Canada said the organization participated in the government’s safe sport helpline and hired third-party investigators to look into the claims it received. Hockey Canada became a full signatory in October 2022 to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commission, which is now responsible for overseeing and investigating allegations of abuse in sport.
Canadian police chiefs speak out on death of Tyre Nichols beaten by Memphis, Tennofficers
Canadian police chiefs condemned on Friday the death of Tyre Nichols who was savagely beaten by Memphis, Tenn police during a traffic stop in the United States, saying the officers involved must be held accountable.
The condemnation of the actions that led to Tyre Nichols’ death came as authorities in Memphis, Tenn., released a video of what happened.
The footage shows officers holding Nichols down and striking him repeatedly as he screamed for his mother.
After the beating, officers milled about for several minutes while Nichols lay propped up against a car, then slumped onto the street.
Nichols died three days after the Jan. 7 confrontation. The officers, all of whom are Black, were charged Thursday with murder and other crimes.
Chief Myron Demkiw of the Toronto Police Service offered sincere condolences to Nichols’ family and friends. He said the actions of the officers in Memphis will have long-standing impacts on communities in Toronto and would have a disproportionate effect on some members of the Black community.
“I am profoundly saddened by the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee,” Demkiw said in a post on Twitter. “On behalf of the Toronto Police Service, I condemn the violent actions of the officers involved.”
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police called the circumstances of Nichols’ death “horrific and highly disturbing,” and offered condolences to his loved ones.
“(Officers’) duties must always be done in a manner that is transparent, professional, and upholds the high standards of policing as a profession,” the association said in a statement. “Every officer understands that they are accountable for their actions.”
The Ottawa Police Service said Nichols’ death and similar tragedies destabilize communities and undermine trust in police across North America.
“Nichols’ death, like so many before him, is tragic,” Ottawa police said. “We join in the calls for justice, and we support the steps being taken to fully investigate the incident and hold the individuals accountable.”
The chiefs of Peel police, Windsor police and Regina police also issued statements to condemn the actions of the officers charged in Nichols’ death.
Peel police chief Nishan Duraiappah said the death of Nichols was “deeply disturbing,” and that his thoughts were with the man’s family and community.
Windsor police chief Jason Bellaire said Nichols’ death and similar events affect “police credibility” globally, and it will take the police a long time to rebuild relationships and restore trust with the community.
He said his force will work with any community groups that want to plan peaceful protests in response to Nichols’ death.
Regina police chief Evan Bray called the death of Nichols “tragic and unnecessary” in a video posted on Twitter.
Bray said he reached out to leaders from his city’s Black community to express his sympathy and noted that Nichols’ death brings up “all kinds of heartache and trauma.”
The Edmonton Police Service called the death of Nichols a tragedy and said what happened in Memphis does not reflect police work in any form.
“There is no avoiding that the five officers, now charged with second-degree murder and other charges, were on duty when they committed this act,” the service said in an email.
“EPS (Edmonton Police Service) supports the swift and decisive action taken by the Memphis police in seeking justice for Mr. Nichols and his family.”
Given the likelihood of protests, Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis said she and other local officials decided it would be best to release the video later in the day, after schools were dismissed and people were home from work.
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, warned supporters of the “horrific” nature of the video but pleaded for peaceful protests.
“I don’t want us burning up our city, tearing up the streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” she said. “If you guys are here for me and Tyre, then you will protest peacefully.”
The officers each face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Four of the five officers had posted bond and been released from custody by Friday morning, according to court and jail records.
Second-degree murder is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.
As a precaution, Memphis-area schools cancelled all after-class activities and postponed an event scheduled for Saturday morning. Other early closures included the city power company’s community offices and the University of Memphis.
Davis said other officers are still being investigated for violating department policy. In addition, she said “a complete and independent review” will be conducted of the department’s specialized units, without providing further details.
Two fire department workers were also removed from duty over Nichols’ arrest.
— With files from The Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.
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