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Travellers returning home must enter mandatory isolation: health minister – CTV News

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TORONTO —
As of early Wednesday morning, all travellers returning home to Canada must go into mandatory self-isolation for 14 days according to new measures being enacted under the federal Quarantine Act.

On Wednesday morning, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told the Senate that all travellers, with the exception of “essential workers,” will be legally obligated to isolate themselves upon their arrival in Canada to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. She said the new measure will provide “clarity” to those re-entering the country.

During a scrum with reporters following the Senate proceedings, Hajdu said Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers will inform arriving passengers of their new obligation to self-isolate.

The health minister said all international travellers will be told they won’t be allowed to make any stops along the way on their journey home and they will not be allowed to take public transportation. She clarified that this would be the case for all returning travellers and not just those exhibiting symptoms, as she said earlier in the day.

Hajdu said the government will make travel arrangements for those who don’t have private transportation lined up.

The health minister also said travellers will be forbidden from self-isolating in a place where they may come into contact with vulnerable people, such as the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions. Hajdu said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) will make alternative arrangements for accommodations for those individuals.

To ensure the rules are being followed, Hajdu said officials will collect travellers’ contact information to follow up with them and there will be random inspections.

“My officials are working with CBSA right now to ensure that people know that this will be serious and that there will be significant penalties if people violate the quarantine,” she said.

Travellers arriving at one of the four international airports and connecting onwards will be forced to isolate for 14 days in the city they land in, the health minister said.

“We will provide the accommodations and meals for those situations,” she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the health minister is using powers that she has under the Quarantine Act and they’re required now to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in the country.

“All Canadians have been working very, very hard to practice physical distancing in their lives and we have for some time now been urgently advising people coming into Canada to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. We have decided that now is the time to make that measure mandatory,” Freeland said during a press conference on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

“I think we all really appreciate that it is so important to have this self-isolation to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”

Freeland said the issue had been debated “at length” during the coronavirus cabinet committee meeting on Monday night.

While the government has been urging travellers returning to Canada to enter into a two-week self-isolation for weeks, the new measure will make it illegal to disobey. Those caught in contravention of the act may be subject to fines or even arrest, according to the federal government.

“I think all Canadians understand that this is a serious situation,” she said. “It will get worse before it gets better.”

Under the Quarantine Act, which received a major overhaul in 2005 following the SARS outbreak of 2003, the federal government can impose significant measures aimed at preventing the spread of a virus.

The law also includes a range of penalties for those who violate such measures, including a fine of up to $1 million and up to three years in prison.

The deputy prime minister stressed that travellers should already be doing this in order to protect the health and safety of their fellow Canadians.

“If we can flatten the curve, then we can go back to normal life more quickly,” she emphasized.

International travel, particularly from hard-hit countries such as China, Iran, and South Korea and then later Europe and the U.S., has been identified as one of the major reasons for the virus’ spread in Canada.

Earlier this month, the Canadian government followed the lead of other countries and closed their borders to foreign visitors. The Canada-U.S. border has also been closed to all non-essential travel.

Freeland said those essential workers returning to Canada from the U.S. will not be subject to the mandatory 14-day isolation.

“We need to be thoughtful about how the people who provide those essential services, including cross-border trade, are treated,” she said.

With files from The Canadian Press  

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These Canadians living abroad didn’t come home when coronavirus started — and still won’t – Global News

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Scrambling home on international flights and paying thousands to find footing on Canadian soil again isn’t an ideal scenario for many expats who choose to live abroad during the coronavirus pandemic.

As some countries saw the spread of the virus weeks before cases were confirmed in Canada and are seemingly further along in flattening the curve, it feels safer to stay put, said Kevin Caners, who has lived in Berlin, Germany for six years. 

Global News spoke to Caners, originally from Brockville, Ont., more than a month ago about whether he planned to come home due to the outbreak.


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At the time, Canada had fewer than 70 cases, while Germany had close to 400. Caners expressed then that he’d hoped the situation would improve in Europe and he didn’t feel compelled to return to Canada. 

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Now, with Canada having more than 20,000 cases and 500 deaths due to COVID-19, Caners is doubling down on his plan to remain in Germany and is unsure whether a planned visit to Ontario in June is possible. 

“I can see why a lot of people would want to go home,” said Caners, 34. “But for me it didn’t really seriously cross my mind, because it sounded very stressful to go back to Canada.

“I didn’t think there’s anything [in Canada] that would make weathering this storm any easier that it would be weathering it here,” he said.

Moving back home would mean moving back in with his parents, having to find a new job and living in quarantine for the first 14 days, he said.

“My life is so set up here…and we are a bit further ahead, it had hit us strongly before it hit Canada,” he said.

“So it felt a bit safer here because things were already in flux, and my whole support system is here…I have a safe place to live. I feel it was safer and more comfortable to stay here.”






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COVID-19: Repatriating Canadians is ‘on a scale we have never seen before’ – Champagne


COVID-19: Repatriating Canadians is ‘on a scale we have never seen before’ – Champagne

For those who just moved abroad and don’t have a support system or steady employment, coming home to Canada would be more pertinent, he said.

As of April 8, there are more than 370,000 Canadians who have signed up for the Registration of Canadians Abroad service provided by Global Affairs Canada. Signing up doesn’t mean you require services to come back to Canada, they said in an email.

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Kevin Caners is glad he stayed in Germany instead of returning to Canada in March. Photo provided by Kevin Caners.

Kevin Caners is glad he stayed in Germany instead of returning to Canada in March. Photo provided by Kevin Caners.


Provided by Kevin Caners

Currently, the daily total of new coronavirus cases has dropped in Germany from around 7,000 to an average of 4,000 and the country has had lower death tolls than Britain, France, Spain and Italy, according to the New York Times. 

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With Austria looking to ease restrictions, Caners says Germans are starting to see the “light at the end of the tunnel,” and he would rather stay put in the hopes the same will happen in Berlin sooner than Canada.

Seeing that hope start to emerge in parts of Europe can be a cautious indication to Canadians that measures can have an impact and improve the scenario, he said.

“Canada will also get through it, it’s just a question of where and when things can go back to what we considered normal,” he said.

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‘Allowed to start going out’ soon in Austria 

The possibility of returning to some semblance of normalcy is one reason Leora Courtney-Wolfman is remaining in Vienna, Austria, where she has lived for the past seven years.

Global News also spoke to Courtney-Wolfman, 35, last month when Vienna was facing lock downs Canada hadn’t experienced yet. 

Austrian officials announced this week that restrictions would begin to loosen in the country, including shops and stores being allowed to re-open in the coming weeks.

A national lockdown was imposed in Austria on March 16, earlier than some other European counterparts. 


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“I feel even better about staying in Austria compared to Canada, because I think from what I’ve seen the country has been quite a leader as far as how to contain things, and how to deal with things overall and just controlling the spread,” said Courtney-Wolfman, who works as a demographic researcher. 

Measures to keep everyone at home appear to be stricter in Austria, allowing her some comfort that the country’s on the right track, she said.

In Vienna she also has job security, which she doesn’t want to abandon to return to Canada, she said. More than a million are now unemployed across the country, Statistics Canada announced on April 9.

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On March 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the launch of a loan initiative to help Canadians abroad return home as flights became more scarce and increased in costs. 

Wrangling a flight and risking an airport trip, along with a 14-day quarantine upon return, also didn’t seem ideal, said Courtney-Wolfman. 

“Trying to get a flight or paying for it, even with the loans, it seems incredible stressful,” she said. 

Living in Vienna has allowed her to be in “probably one of the best, least stressful, more certain positions, she said. That would change if she had any more vulnerable family members who may need care in Canada, which would be a good reason to return home, she said. 

After being under a long period of lockdown, she says that while it’s tough to stay home for two months, following the rules can lead to tentative success, she said.

“My suggestion is if you can stay home, stay home, which is easier said than done,” she said. “But we’re going to be allowed to start going out and doing stuff.”

Staying to help on the frontlines

Canadian Alexis Rancier decided to stay in the United Kingdom as the country saw their cases spike to now more than 65,000 along with over 7,000 deaths. 

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But her reasons for remaining aren’t because the country is ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling the virus. She feels a duty to stick around due to her role as an occupational therapist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. 


Alexis Rancier is staying in the U.K. to work in a hospital.

“I am one of the essential workers on the front line,” she said. “I have to discharge a whole bunch of people to make sure that we have enough beds for people who actually have COVID-19…so I decided to stay.”

In mid-March, U.K. officials faced criticism for allowing restaurants, schools and public spaces to remain open as cases were steadily increasing. 

Now cases have exploded and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains in hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19. 


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Rancier says she loves England, but misses her family. She felt a duty to stay at the hospital and help where she can as the country continues to battle the impact of the virus, she explained.

If she wasn’t an essential worker, she would have come home to Canada, she said.

Looking at home from across the pond, she said Canada is tackling the virus more efficiently than the U.K.

“Everyone went on lockdown sooner than the U.K. did, which I think made a big impact…you guys are handling it way better over there,” she said. 

Many in England are flouting social distancing rules and Canadians seem to be listening to officials a little better, she said.

Knowing she can come back to Canada any time has been comforting and currently she feels safe at the hospital she works at, she added.

“Going home can be an option if I do absolutely feel that I’m not coping,” she said.

— With files from Katherine Aylesworth

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Coronavirus: Are call centre employees from Canada’s banks allowed to work from home? – Global News

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Only one of Canada’s six big banks says it is developing plans to allow some customer services employees to work from home instead of in crowded call centres —  the type of enclosed spaces with over 50 people that public health officials have urged Canadians to avoid in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Global News reached out to the six major Canadian banks TD, the Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank, CIBC and National Bank of Canada to find out what they were doing to protect the health of thousands of call centre employees who are responding to inquiries from their customers.

All six said they have been providing essential services and dealing with high call volumes ever since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered tens of thousands of layoffs and a shutdown of multiple businesses and offices across the country.

The crisis has also prompted a flood of transactions as well as requests for emergency loans and other financial advice, the banks told Global News.

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But none of the six big banks provided detailed explanations why their call centre employees — who don’t need to meet with clients face to face — are being asked to work from offices with dozens of colleagues at a time when the federal, provincial and territorial governments are asking Canadians to avoid gathering in crowds that could speed up the spread of COVID-19.

While many other businesses have scrambled to provide employees with tools needed to work from home, the banks are not facing any mandatory rules to protect employees, other than to ensure they are kept physically distanced.

Instead, federal public health officials have promoted voluntary guidelines for businesses, including banks, to follow in call centres and other workplaces.

RBC was the only other bank that said it was starting to allow some customer service employees to work remotely and that it was “working diligently to securely enable even more call centre staff to work from home.” RBC didn’t provide details about where and how that would be done.






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Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau urges Canadians to continue COVID-19 prevention efforts over long weekend


Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau urges Canadians to continue COVID-19 prevention efforts over long weekend

Toronto-Dominion Bank said it would be allowing all staff at a Halifax call centre for TD Insurance to work from home after staff were informed on March 27 that one of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.

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TD told the Halifax employees in an internal email, sent on March 30 and obtained by Global News, that it hopes to have all TD Insurance employees at that call centre working from home “over the next few weeks.”

The message was prompted by the news that one employee had tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a deep clean of the third floor of the call centre where that employee worked and forcing 15 close contacts to self-isolate.

An employee who Global News agreed not to name in order to protect their job said roughly 100 people were still working at the call centre as of April 1, and had not been following the proper health guidelines.

“We often see the people, even supervisors, are not respecting the social distancing in the office,” the employee said.


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The internal email said 182 employees of that Halifax call centre were already working from home. A TD spokesperson told Global News that common areas at the facility were closed and the remaining staff were split between four floors to “enhance physical distancing.”

But TD did not indicate any similar plans would be underway for any of its bank call centre employees.

A COVID-19 case was also identified at a CIBC call centre in Halifax in late March. A CIBC spokesperson said it had conducted a deep clean of the premises, where an employee told Global News over 100 people worked on each floor before physical distancing measures were put into place.

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Measures in place

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Public health officials across Canada have said that Canadians must aggressively practice physical distancing and remain at home as much as possible in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent it from overwhelming hospitals.

The CEOs of the six banks and several smaller financial institutions have publicly agreed they have a role to play, and have urged other businesses to follow suit.

The banks all told Global News they are taking measures to protect call centre workers. These include reconfiguring workspaces within their call centres to keep staff apart, in line with health officials’ guidelines to stay at least two metres away from each other.






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Coronavirus outbreak: Federal ministers respond to Ipsos poll on social distancing


Coronavirus outbreak: Federal ministers respond to Ipsos poll on social distancing

But one labour expert was skeptical about whether the measures go far enough to protect the employees in the workplace or on their commute, for those taking public transit.

“To make a flat declaration that you’re essential and therefore you’ll arrange things and we’ll have to be confident that those arrangements will be safe — I mean, let’s hope they’re right, but it’s kind of a big leap,” said Mark Thompson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

TD, Scotiabank and National Bank said they have split up teams between different floors, or different locations altogether, to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

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None of the banks beyond RBC and TD indicated working from home was even an option for these workers.


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BMO said it needed to maintain some onsite staff “to support critical operations.” Scotiabank also called its call centres “critical.” Neither bank provided detailed explanations of those critical operations, or why they couldn’t be performed from home.

A spokesperson for RBC said a “number of considerations” are factored into allowing an employee to work from home, “including employee health and well-being, technology and business continuity, along with the need to respond to our clients.”

When pressed by Global News, National Bank and CIBC declined to explain why its call centre employees needed to do their jobs in the office.

The six banks said in addition to physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning guidelines have also been introduced at all call centres for staff to follow.

The banks offered varying details about steps they were taking to clean and disinfect their call centres.






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Coronavirus outbreak: Dealing with screen fatigue during the pandemic


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BMO said all call centre facilities, personal spaces and common areas are cleaned multiple times per day. CIBC said workstations are now cleaned at the beginning and end of each shift, while cleaners are also present during the day.

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TD said the cleaning and sanitizing of all premises have been increased, and are stocking spaces with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.

National Bank would only say they were promoting “basic hygiene measures” like hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Scotiabank said they have increased sanitization and deep cleaning measures at all locations. RBC also said they have “enhanced sanitization.”

The banks are also increasing their perks for call centre staff. BMO, RBC, Scotiabank and CIBC have introduced a $50 daily stipend for each of those staff members for every day they work onsite.

CIBC has thrown in free parking. Scotiabank is stationing nurses at all call centres “to provide in-person wellbeing support for mental and physical health concerns.”

TD and CIBC are offering up to 10 paid days for anyone impacted by the pandemic, including those who are unable to secure childcare. TD is also providing free counselling.

National Bank did not say if it was offering similar incentives to its employees.


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Only National Bank and TD would share where their call centres are located and how many people work in them. National said it has “five main teams working in different sites” across the greater Montreal area, for a total of 1,000 employees. The spokesperson would not confirm exactly how many sites were being operated, or how many employees were working in each site.

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TD said they have call centres in Moncton, N.B., Montreal, London, Ont., Ottawa and Markham, Ont., though did not share how many employees work in each, or if more than one site was operated in a single city.

The other banks did not share where their call centres are located, or even if they’re located in Canada.

In 2013, CBC reported RBC was replacing some of its Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers from India, leading to a public apology from the bank. RBC eventually walked back the plan, committing to only hiring foreign workers if Canadians aren’t available to fill that job.

Can government step in?

Along with health care, transportation, government centres and media, banks and other financial institutions have been declared essential services by the federal and provincial governments, and should therefore continue to operate.

The federal finance department referred questions about remote work for call centres to Health Canada, who in turn forwarded the query to Employment and Social Development.

In a statement, a department spokesperson said employers have been told to create or update existing hazard prevention programs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of any changes to those plans.


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“We recognize that many employers who are able to continue their operations during the COVID-19 crisis are going above and beyond standard health and safety measures, and are doing everything possible to accommodate reasonable requests from employees,” the statement read.

“We all have a role to play to help flatten the curve.”

Thompson, the UBC business professor, says no matter how many precautions employers may take, they’re still “taking a chance” and posing a risk to both employees and the public at large by keeping workplaces open.

He admits that banks could be worried about security breaches in not moving call centres to home, as they deal with sensitive information to confirm callers’ identities.

But he says he’s still “surprised” that a solution hasn’t been found amid months of warnings and weeks of efforts to ramp up social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.






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How to be productive while working from home during a pandemic


How to be productive while working from home during a pandemic

“We’re still waiting to see if these efforts work, but we should be doing as much as we can,” he said. “[The banks] are obligated to provide a safe workplace.

“If just one person contracts this disease … I guess we’ll find out then what steps they’ll take.”

Employment Canada said requirements for businesses to have all employees work from home is a provincial matter. So far, no province has made such an order, although Alberta has now made it mandatory for businesses to practice physical distancing, threatening fines for those who disobey.

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All of the provinces and territories have placed restrictions on gatherings that have led to the closure of businesses and public spaces closures, with exceptions for businesses and organizations that offer essential services.

Many provincial governments who responded to Global News said as long as workplaces, including bank call centres, can maintain physical distancing, they can continue to stay open and operate.


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“If social distance can’t be maintained, the business must limit the number of customers or clients on its premises to no more than five people at a time,” a spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 response said in an email, citing that province’s social distancing guidelines.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said banks are considered an “allowable business service” in the province, along with health care, law enforcement, transportation and the media.

“We cannot speak directly to the relationship between banks and their call centre employees,” a spokesperson said.

A statement attributed to New Brunswick Labour Minister Leigh Watson said any employee concerned that their employer is violating the Employment Standards Act by forcing them to work in unsafe conditions can file a complaint with the province, or through WorkSafe.






0:57
Coronavirus outbreak: Canadians’ actions today will determine where we are a month from now


Coronavirus outbreak: Canadians’ actions today will determine where we are a month from now

Yet British Columbia’s COVID-19 Joint Information Centre said all employers “should support their employees to work from home whenever it is possible,” and “ensure there are no more than 50 people working in the same confined space.”

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“Employers have a responsibility and an obligation to maintain a healthy and safe workplace for their workers,” a spokesperson said.

In March, the CEOs of all six banks signed an open letter, published in the National Post, along with roughly 100 other Canadians business leaders who urged employers to “immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of this coronavirus.”

“Enable your employees to practice social distancing. Facilitate work-from-home for all non-critical business functions,” the leaders stressed.

“Understand that your employees are looking to you for leadership and trusted information in turbulent times.”

— With files from Global’s Alexa MacLean and Graeme Benjamin

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Government documents reveal a slow start to Canada's COVID-19 response – CBC.ca

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Briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats for federal ministers show just how quickly the COVID-19 situation evolved in Canada — with public health officials stating the risk of transmission in Canada was low right up until early March, only to recommend an ordered shutdown of economic life in this country some two weeks later.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Thursday that it could be as long as a year before normal life returns in Canada — a dramatic change in messaging, considering how Public Health Agency of Canada officials were advising policymakers less than two months ago that COVID-19 risks were low in this country, and that mandatory quarantines for returning travellers would be too difficult to enforce.

A March 10 department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of question period said that, with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point, “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.” The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.”

A month later, Canada has more than 21,000 cases.

As the documents show, as early as Jan. 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the risk of COVID-19 transmission as “very high” in China and “high at the global level.”

Early messages from bureaucrats to Health Minister Patty Hajdu never hinted at the eventual scope of the pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The tranche of documents, prepared by various government departments and tabled with the Commons Health committee late Wednesday, include many of the early planning memos that informed the federal government’s response to COVID-19 in January and February.

They show that while the government was seized with repatriating Canadians from China’s Hubei province and various cruise ships during that time, there was little talk of a possible pandemic.

Public health officials questioned the accuracy of media reports out of the city of Wuhan, in Hubei, suggesting that the virus was spreading through person-to-person contact.

“Based on the latest information that we have, there is no clear evidence that the virus is easily transmitted between people,” a Jan. 19 briefing note prepared for Hajdu said.

The documents also reveal that the government was reluctant to strictly police travellers arriving from Hubei, the region of China where the novel coronavirus is thought to have originated.

‘Next to impossible’ to stop COVID-19: minister

According to talking points prepared for a Jan. 30 call with her provincial and territorial counterparts, Hajdu said preventing the virus from arriving in Canada was “next to impossible” because of the nature of global travel.

“What really counts is limiting its impact and controlling its spread once it gets here,” the talking point reads.

Three days later, the U.S. barred all non-citizens coming from China from entering the country.

While there were information booths at major Canadian airports starting on January 21, the decision to collect personal contact information from inbound Hubei travellers was only made on Feb. 19 — information that could then be used by public health officials to follow up with people if an outbreak emerged.

Scenes from a pandemic: passengers arrive at the Calgary Airport after being briefed on mandatory self-isolation rules March 25, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The government relied on individuals to self-report to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers if they were experiencing flu-like symptoms, long after temperature monitoring measures were commonplace at airports in Asia.

Between Jan. 22 and Feb. 18, 58,000 travellers arrived in Canada from China — 2,030 of them were coming from Hubei province.

Only 68 were pulled aside for further assessment by a quarantine officer and only three passengers were actually flagged for a medical exam — the other 65 passengers were sent away with a pamphlet.

It’s impossible to know how many pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic passengers were released into the general Canadian population.

Bureaucrats warn against mandatory quarantines

On Feb. 7, the government started recommending that inbound Hubei passengers start to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days to prevent transmission.

In an undated memo to Hajdu sent in mid-February, department officials warned that Canadians may question the effectiveness of “voluntary” self-isolation measures for these travellers.

But the memo says “there is no ability to enforce or ensure compliance” with a mandatory isolation order without the use of the Quarantine Act — a measure the government would end up enacting weeks later.

The memo said it was best to leave all self-isolation measures as voluntary to ensure there is “less pressure on public health resources.”

The memo said public health officials didn’t have the capacity required to quarantine passengers from China; 20,000 such travellers were arriving in Canada each week at the time.

The Public Health Agency scrubbed any references to China in pamphlets disseminated to returning travelers starting on Feb. 24, after it was clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in countries like Iran and Italy.

I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic.– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Calls between Hajdu and her provincial and territorial counterparts later in February focused on quarantine facilities for returning Hubei and cruise ship travellers in Trenton and Belleville, but said little about how the various jurisdictions would respond if COVID-19 escalated.

According to briefing notes for a Feb. 10 call, Hajdu said that while the country was in a “containment phase, we cannot ignore what comes next.”

The note states that the Public Health Agency of Canada was “doing advanced thinking and scenario analysis, including a pandemic scenario,” but it’s not clear if those scenarios were actually discussed with provinces and territories on that call.

The pandemic has made N95 masks rare and coveted objects. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Health Canada expected Hajdu would be pressed by the provinces about the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the call. The department told her then there were ongoing “attempts” to secure devices like N95 and surgical masks for the national stockpile but “deliveries were staggered by industry due to mounting market pressures.”

It said it had procured only a “modest” amount of the masks — items that would be badly needed a month later.

By Feb. 26, when there were 78,000 COVID-19 cases in mainland China, public health officials continued to counsel Hajdu that “the public health risk within Canada remains low.” A month later, there would be 1,000 cases in Ontario alone.

Even after the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in Canada started to rise by mid-February, Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg did very few tests, with most of them reserved for travellers from China. It is now understood there was widespread transmission of the disease in Europe and in some U.S. hotspots like New York by this time.

By Feb. 17, the national lab had run only 461 tests — a marginal increase from the 367 tests run the week before.

By Feb. 25, Ontario and B.C. had provincial labs ready to test but the other provinces were still relying on sending samples to Winnipeg — a cumbersome process that made it difficult to identify and isolate cases in the other provinces early on.

Countries ‘caught off guard’: Trudeau

When asked Thursday what went wrong in the government’s COVID-19 planning, Trudeau said there will be time for reflection at a later date. He said he was confident the government made the “best decisions” with “the information we have.”

“I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic,” he said. “The challenges we faced in terms of getting Canadians protected are echoed in challenges faced around the world.

Watch: Trudeau warns Canadians need to remain vigilant

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said normal life for Canadians will not return until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed 2:32

“I think Canada has done a good job of keeping on a path that is going to minimize as much as possible the reality we’re in right now. As we look back at the end of this, I’m sure people will say, ‘You could have done this a few days before.'”

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