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New ‘near zero’ COVID approach needed in Canada, argues group of academics



In early May 2020, when the B.C. government announced its COVID-19 recovery plan, senior health officials were clear about their strategy.

Eliminating transmission of the virus was seen as an impossible goal because of the size of the province and its physical links with Washington state and Alberta. Instead, B.C. would seek to contain the virus, removing or adding restrictions as case counts fell or rose, until a vaccine was widely distributed.

That was roughly the model in all parts of Canada outside the Atlantic bubble and the vast majority of jurisdictions in North America and Europe.

Nearly all those countries, states and provinces are now struggling to contain the virus, regardless of their success in the spring and summer. It’s led a group of Canadian academics and business leaders to argue there’s one final opportunity for a new approach.

“We know that what we’re doing isn’t working. We need a strategic way forward,” said Caroline Colijn, an infectious diseases specialist at Simon Fraser University and member of a new initiative called COVID Strategic Choices.

“We have to do something else in the meantime, because we have six months or maybe more before we can rely on the vaccine to support our social and economic activity.”



Clear metrics, greater restrictions, tracking travel

Colijn’s group is advocating for a “Canadian Shield” strategy, one where all provinces commit to the same general strategy, with strong restrictions over the next four to six weeks.

The goal wouldn’t be “COVID zero,” referring to countries that have aimed for complete elimination of the virus, but COVID “near zero.”

The approach would involve a four to six week lockdown to reduce the virus to a point where testing and contact tracing can be a sustainable strategy until vaccinations are readily available. Following the lockdown, it would involve setting clear goals with set numbers defining success or lack of it, expanding and lengthening restrictions where necessary.

Examples of possible new restrictions would be closing gyms and high-density retail outlets, public health orders against travel instead of recommendations, and high school and post-secondary school closures.

Without serious changes, COVID Strategic Choices believes it will be difficult to dramatically reduce transmission.

“Every place has learned. They’ve all gone ‘look what happened to our contact tracers. Oh, now they’re delayed. Oh, now they’re overrun,'” said Colijn.

“Then we have to close down again. And I think we’ve seen this multiple times.”

Colijn and other researchers looked at a grouping called TAZNAC democracies — referring to Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Atlantic and Northern Canada — and found that all have seen better economic outcomes (measured by 2020 GDP projections), in addition to their low case counts.

“There’s been this framing of it’s the economy versus COVID,” she said,” [but] controlling COVID and then reopening and being able to sustain a reopening would actually be better for the economy, as well as for health.”

Can everyone be on the same page?

Colijn acknowledges there are several obstacles to the Canadian Shield plan. One is getting all provinces between B.C. and Quebec to agree to the same general plan. Another is getting buy-in from the public for several more weeks of large restrictions when some people are already getting vaccinated.

But she argues we’ve seen what the alternative is — and it’s not worth repeating in 2021.

“It’s becoming clear how bad it is to keep telling everybody to shut down and have these extreme distancing measures, and then have them relax for a little bit, and then have to roll them out again,” she said.

As most Canadians begin a new year with an old strategy, Colijn is hopeful alternatives will be considered.

“Whatever we do for a few weeks, it’s a one-off measure. And when we stop doing it, we get back to where we were before,” she said.

“We need to do something else.”


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MPs clash over pandemic response as Parliament resumes Monday –



Members of Parliament continue to clash over the federal government’s COVID-19 response as the House of Commons is set to reconvene on Monday for the first time this year.

In a panel interview on CBC Radio’s The House, Conservative MP Michael Chong and Liberal MP Arif Virani offered duelling analogies to describe Canada’s pandemic response, days before deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are expected to drop dramatically over the next four weeks.

“It’s like saying that I have negotiated a contract with six fire departments to respond to my fire, but they won’t respond for six hours when I do have a fire. And my neighbour has negotiated one contract with a single fire department to respond in five minutes,” Chong told host Chris Hall.

“Personally, I’ll take the single contract with the fire department that responds in five minutes because that is going to save my house. We are the country that’s negotiated the contract with six fire departments … that’s the problem here.”

Canada has signed agreements to receive the vaccine from seven companies, including Pfizer and Moderna. Candidates from the remaining suppliers have yet to receive the regulatory green light from Health Canada, though Virani said the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson products are “on the precipice of hopeful approvals.”

“A different analogy would be, with respect to firefighting, about … how much water do you use on the fire? And we’ve been criticized, including by [Chong’s] party, for putting too much water on the fires in terms of the spending that we’ve been doing,” Virani said.

“But our position is clear. We will remain constant in having Canadians’ backs for as long as it takes to weather this pandemic, including running deficits to do so.”

CBC News: The House12:33The pandemic, Parliament and a possible election

MPs Heather McPherson, Arif Virani and Michael Chong discuss what they hope to see unfold in the months ahead after the House of Commons returns Monday. 12:33

Looking ahead to federal budget

In December, the House of Commons rose for a six-week break without deciding how Parliament should safely resume in the new year. It remains to be seen whether MPs will meet virtually with no members physically present in the Commons or whether they’ll continue to follow the hybrid model put in place last year.

“We have been having discussions with the other parties about the return of Parliament on Monday. Those discussions have been constructive,” read a statement from the office of Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez.

But when Parliament does resume — amid soaring COVID-19 caseloads in parts of the country — it also comes as Ottawa prepares for its first federal budget in two years. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has criticized the Liberal government for not making paid leave accessible for workers who are helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“We need to see some action from this government,” NDP deputy House leader Heather McPherson told The House in the same interview. “I mean, we have seen things like child care, we have seen things like pharmacare, over and over and over again in these Liberal throne speeches. But we haven’t seen the action taken.”

McPherson said a child-care strategy will be critical for economic recovery from the pandemic, on top of additional support for small businesses. When Parliament returns, she said the NDP will also be pushing the Liberal government on ending clawbacks of the Canada emergency response benefit and calling for expanded access to paid sick leave.

“If [the Liberals] continue to help deliver for Canadians, then we’ll continue to work with them,” she said.

Conservatives, Liberals lay out priorities 

Chong said that the Opposition will be zeroing in on vaccine procurement and improving the pace of Canada’s rollout, among other priorities. 

“We’re looking for two measures in the upcoming budget that we believe are really important, one of which the government has indicated it’s supportive of, and that is the changes to the Canada Child Benefit that would help Canadian families, particularly working women and single mothers,” the Conservative foreign affairs critic said.

The party is also looking for additional measures to help small businesses buffeted by a second wave of pandemic restrictions.

Virani said he was “keen” to hear the ideas proposed by his colleagues and laid out some priorities of his own, including immediately working to close a loophole in the federal sickness benefit that allows Canadians quarantining after personal travel to claim sick pay.

Virani, who is also the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, said the new Biden administration in the United States also changes what’s on the government’s to-do list. 

“We’ve now got a co-operative administration that understands the importance of greening the planet,” Virani said, “as well as working on issues that are germane to both of our nations.”

That includes a rise in systemic discrimination and online hate — the latter of which Virani says he’s been tackling with Justice Minister David Lametti. 

“We’re looking for progress on a number of files, but it starts with the pandemic and addressing the pandemic,” he said.

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Spartan Bioscience says Health Canada approves rapid COVID-19 test –



Ottawa-based company Spartan Bioscience has received Health Canada approval for its made-in-Canada rapid COVID-19 test, authorizing the sale of the device. 

“Spartan’s test is the first truly mobile, rapid PCR test for COVID-19 for the Canadian market,” a news release from the company states. “The Spartan COVID-19 system offers the speed and ease of use of a rapid test, while using the technology of lab-based COVID-19 testing solutions.”

Health Canada originally provided regulatory approval for the company’s device in April 2020 — with the federal government ordering 40,000 tests monthly. At the time, the portable test was being called a “game changer” by health officials because it could deliver on-location results within 60 minutes.

The federal agency restricted the device to research use in May, however, after finding problems with the test that made it unreliable. Approval was granted on Friday after the company conducted clinical trials based on a new device design, Health Canada spokesperson Natalie Mohamed told CBC News in an email.

“The Spartan Bioscience test is a point-of-care molecular test,”  Mohamed wrote. “This new device meets Health Canada’s requirements for safety and effectiveness.”

WATCH | Health Canada approves Canadian-made rapid COVID-19 testing system:

Canada’s health authority approved Spartan Bioscience’s rapid COVID-19 testing system. 3:12

New swab, upgrades to chemistry kit

Dr. James Spiegelman, a co-founder of the company who also practises internal medicine at Humber River Regional Hospital in Toronto, said the problems stemmed from the efficacy of the swabs used to collect tissue samples, not the machine itself.

Spartan originally used a proprietary cheek swab that it developed for other DNA diagnostics, he said, but it became clear that the swab wasn’t collecting enough genetic material to produce consistent, reliable results.

The company now uses standard nasopharyngeal swabs to collect tissue from the nose.

“We found that that provides the best sample for increased sensitivity of the test,” Spiegelman said.

Spiegelman said the company also made improvements to the sample processing kit so that it no longer needs to be shipped and stored at frozen temperatures but can be stored at room temperature. 

With the Spartan test, a trained health-care professional swabs the nose of the person being tested, places the swab into a processing kit that generates a chain reaction and then puts that kit into the cube-shaped device, which takes about 50 minutes to analyze and produce results. 

Spiegelman said the test could be used to provide quick and accurate COVID-19 diagnostics everywhere from hospitals and workplaces to pharmacies and remote communities. 

“I think [Spartan’s rapid test] will really help alleviate and give us a tool in our toolbox to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

Rapid tests already in use across Canada 

Rapid diagnostic tests are already in use in many settings across Canada to test for COVID-19, including in homeless shelters, long-term care homes and remote communities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that the federal government had distributed more than 14 million to the provinces and territories. 

“Hopefully we see these integrated into work environments, especially work environments where we know they’re at greater risk for outbreaks,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who is also a member of the Ontario COVID-19 vaccine task force.

“I think you could think about certainly integrating them into certain schools or certain school settings, rural, remote, underserviced locations. There’s a lot of places where rapid tests would be extremely helpful.”

Spartan Bioscience CEO Roger Eacock said the company currently has the manufacturing capacity to produce 60,000 of the tests per week, but the company plans to ramp that up to 200,000 per week in the future. 

Eacock said the company already has deals with the federal government and several provinces, as well as some airlines and resource companies, and that shipments are expected to begin in the coming week.

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We asked teachers in Atlantic Canada about the pandemic. Education officials weren't keen. –



It began with a questionnaire sent from CBC to the public email addresses of approximately 22,000 school staffers in eastern Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

It ended with a series of CBC News stories based on the responses of more than 2,000 teachers, many of whom expressed concerns about returning to schools during a pandemic.

But in between, it sparked correspondence — and consternation —  among education officials in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Some of them appear to have been suspicious of CBC’s effort.

Using access to information requests, CBC News obtained more than 300 pages of emails generated by top education and school board officials across Atlantic Canada in the days after CBC journalists sent the questionnaire out.

The documents reveal a flurry of internal consultations and information-sharing among the four provincial governments on how to handle the situation. 

There was displeasure expressed by some that CBC reporters had contacted teachers directly, without getting permission from them first.

There were concerns about whether this constituted a privacy breach. Lawyers were consulted. One senior government official somewhat ominously mentioned “other legal options.”

Back-to-school looked a lot different amid a pandemic, and teacher responses to the CBC questionnaire highlighted stress and uncertainty. (Rachael Blakey)

The resulting stories, which ran in late October, provided a window into the thoughts of teachers in the time of COVID-19. Those teachers had been contacted by email, through addresses found on public school websites. They shared feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed or exhausted. 

Emails written by education officials as the CBC’s questionnaire was circulated reveal unease that the questions were even being asked.

‘Harmful to intergovernmental relations’ 

One province initially didn’t want correspondence with other colleagues across the region revealed to CBC at all.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) and the province’s Department of Education both invoked sections of transparency laws designed to stop the disclosure of information “harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations.”

However, snippets of that correspondence were revealed by other provinces. 

No state secrets appeared to have been involved.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and the Newfoundland and Labrador government initially declined to release emails because they could be “harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations.” (CBC)

After CBC News raised questions about the redactions, officials in Newfoundland and Labrador ultimately reversed their initial decision to black out the correspondence.

Here are excerpts from some of the emails that had at first been deemed too harmful to release:

  • “There has been a mass distribution to our teachers.”
  • “We are working to get screenshots of the questionnaire.”
  • “Here are the screenshots!”

For some reason, an email from the New Brunswick Teachers Federation to its members cautioning them about talking to the media was also redacted as harmful to intergovernmental affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In an email, the school district said those redactions were done in consultation with the provincial government, and steered inquiries to them. The Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education did not provide a response before deadline.

Potential legal issues 

As news of the questionnaire travelled, education officials across the region zeroed in on two issues: how did the CBC get all of those email addresses in the first place, and what questions were being asked?

“We are looking at potential privacy breaches or other legal options,” George Daley, the deputy minister for anglophone schools in New Brunswick, wrote to his counterparts in the other three Atlantic provinces. 

It is not clear what those “other legal options” were, and the New Brunswick government did not directly address that in response to inquiries from CBC News.

New Brunswick government officials worked into a weekend to deduce how CBC obtained teachers emails. They were listed on public school websites. (Rachael Blakey)

Nevertheless, efforts appear to have continued to figure out how the CBC managed to send out all of those emails.

The work in New Brunswick went into a Saturday, two days after the questionnaire first went out. Finally, an answer — nothing nefarious had occurred.

“The majority of our schools have … contact info on their website so easy enough to do if you are willing to take the time,” an internal email noted.

Another email added: “Not much we could do on the IT side to prevent that from happening.”

Asked about those efforts, the New Brunswick Department of Education stressed that information is a “valuable asset that is critical to the delivery of government programs and services,” and teachers are “expected to follow best practice” when it comes to information security. 

“This includes not to click links or open attachments unless they come from a trusted source. Similar comprehensive policies are in place at private companies and media outlets for employees to follow,” spokeswoman Tara Chislett said in an email to CBC News.

“It is always suspicious any time a system wide, mass distributed email from outside government is received. They raise concern of a potential breach of the system and the possibility of a breach in privacy of employees.”

Chislett also noted the low response rate to the questionnaire among New Brunswick teachers.

‘Nothing unusual about this practice’

Further east, the English school board in Newfoundland and Labrador was provided legal advice from internal counsel, although that email is entirely blacked out and it’s not clear exactly what the lawyer had weighed in on.

Board officials indicated in earlier correspondence that they believed the CBC emails contravened their policies.

School district brass in Newfoundland and Labrador and the province’s teachers union appeared to be on the same page about the questionnaire — they shared their draft messages to teachers with each other before sending them out.

In a statement, the NLESD said it “routinely consults with the organization’s executive members, relevant public bodies and its educational partners on a variety of matters of mutual interest. There is nothing unusual about this practice. 

“Similarly, our in-house legal counsel provides a wide range of advice on matters related to the application of provincial legislation, collective agreements, policy implementation and more.”

The CBC News questionnaire was sent to the public email addresses of approximately 22,000 school staffers in eastern Ontario and Atlantic Canada. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Meanwhile, civil servants in Prince Edward Island were able to crack the mystery of exactly what questions were being asked.

According to internal emails, a government official logged into the questionnaire and posed as a teacher, so they could complete it — then took screenshots of all the questions and passed them along.

The verdict from P.E.I was split.

One communications official wrote: “Questions seem fair. I think we will come out near the top really.” But those views weren’t shared universally. “Some ‘loaded’ questions for sure,” was the verdict from the deputy minister, Bethany MacLeod.

1 of 4 ministers respond

The documents obtained by CBC News show officials discussing how to coordinate their responses to the questionnaire.

“If it is bigger than one province, it may be good if all [provinces/territories] had the same messaging,” Newfoundland and Labrador’s then-deputy minister of education, Bob Gardiner, wrote to his three Atlantic colleagues.

In the end, only one provincial education minister in Atlantic Canada granted an interview request when stories about the questionnaire were published — New Brunswick’s Dominic Cardy.

CBC News obtained 300 pages of emails from education officials in all four Atlantic provinces via access to information requests. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Cardy’s deputy minister, meanwhile, had a simple solution for his three counterparts in the other Atlantic provinces, as to how they could handle all of this.

“Here you go,” George Daley wrote. “Just go take the survey. Write in the DM [deputy minister] is awesome for the end comments!”

The spokesperson in New Brunswick had this to say about that: “As for the deputy minister, he went to the site to determine if it was a closed site controlled by email credential or a survey that was open to anyone. He found that anyone could access the site and submit a response whether they were a teacher or not, which could call into question validity of the survey.”

After receiving that email, CBC News reviewed the questionnaire responses it received from New Brunswick. 

No one replied that the deputy minister is awesome.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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