OTTAWA – Canada has failed to learn important lessons from the past pandemic, and frontline workers now pay the price, according to some of Canada’s top health care associations.
They say Canada is entering the COVID-19 crisis without enough personal protective equipment, ventilators or workers – and a health care system that routinely operates beyond capacity.
“We were caught flat feet,” said Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, in Tuesday’s teleconference testimony to the House of Commons health committee.
“I don’t think we are ready enough or we won’t find ourselves in this situation.”
The Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Association of Emergency Doctors and the Federation of Canadian Nurses Unions are the first to raise concerns about the way the country might not be prepared to deal with the massive COVID-19 outbreak.
After the SARS outbreak in Ontario in 2003, a designated commission specifically made a 36-page recommendation to strengthen Canada’s health care system for future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
While many changes were made after the outbreak, including the formation of the Canadian Public Health Agency, other lessons were not heeded, the medical association told MPs.
For years, doctors and other emergency medical staff have warned about the lack of surge capacity in state hospitals, for example.
While hospitals must operate comfortably in about 85 percent of occupancy, they routinely try to function at 110 percent.
“This is something that needs to be maintained, both from the standpoint of basic human decency but also for pandemic planning,” Dr. Alan Drummond with a group of emergency doctors.
“This is a lesson we must learn: this pandemic will not disappear.”
Instead of utilizing the available space in the system, hospitals are forced to cancel less urgent medical procedures and routine outpatient care to make room for possible entry of COVID-19 patients.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu admitted last week that Canadian protective equipment supplies might not be enough to deal with a pandemic.
The issue was a major concern for all frontline health workers who came to the committee.
Linda Silas, president of the Federation of Nursing Unions, said that health workers are often taught to put patients first. But in situations where workers live and their family lives are at risk, their safety must be put on the same footing.
NDP health critic Don Davies referred to a memo from the Hamilton, Ontario hospital, which suggested workers should continue to use the same mask until they were “very dirty,” as a way to ration supplies.
“It hurts, hurts, hurts,” Silas answered.
That caused a lot of anxiety for doctors and other medical staff about what would happen if they ran out of masks and protective clothing and started to get sick, Buchman said.
But while Canada did not learn some of the lessons needed from SARS, H1N1 and other outbreaks, Buchman said he did not think Canada was unique – and did not know any country that was ready to deal with COVID-19.
The Canadian Press report was first published April 7, 2020.
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