Chris Hall: Hajdu says on COVID-19 Ottawa acted on 'the best advice possible at the time'
By Chris Hall, host of The House
Canada's health minister says she'll leave it to others to decide whether the federal government did enough to head off the spread of COVID-19.
"I think that's going to be the job of post-pandemic historians and public health analysts who will go through country by country and determine what has worked for one country and whether or not it would have been applicable or helpful in another," Patty Hajdu said in an interview airing this weekend on CBC Radio's The House.
CBC News reported Friday that briefing notes prepared for Hajdu on March 10 said that, with just 12 cases reported nationwide at that point, the risk of the virus spreading remained low. The note also said the country's public health system remained "well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad."
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A month later the virus had infected more than 21,000 Canadians, prompting a massive shutdown of the Canadian economy. Statistics released this week indicate a million Canadians lost their jobs in March alone.
Hajdu told The House that she asked questions about that March 10 analysis when she got it.
"It was based on what we knew of the epidemiology in Canada, and with very few cases, with a pretty rigorous approach of screening people from the infected areas, we felt confident that we were testing new cases."
Most of the screening covered travellers arriving from China, where the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was first detected.
The Public Health Agency of Canada now says the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 cases in Canada could reach 4,400 even if Canadians continue to follow the advice of staying at home, avoiding all non-essential travel and washing their hands thoroughly and regularly.
That's the best-case scenario. Many other countries are dealing with far more severe outbreaks.
'Best advice possible'
Still, critics suggest the government should have acted sooner to close borders, urge people to wear masks in public, stockpile needed medical supplies and expand testing for the virus.
Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told the health committee this week that this country was caught flat-footed by the pandemic.
"I don't think we were adequately prepared or we wouldn't have found ourselves in this situation," he said via teleconference.
Others suggest the government was too slow in recognizing the virus could be spread within a community and by people who exhibited no outward symptoms.
Hajdu insists the government did what was needed, when it was needed.
"I can tell you we took the best advice possible at the time. Certainly we know countries that did other things and had worse outcomes. And other countries did yet other things with different outcomes," she said.
"It would have seemed ludicrous in January had we said, 'Well, what we should do is shut the borders and stop all non-essential work, including government work.'"
Ian Culbert, of the Canadian Public Health Association, offered a similar view at this week's virtual committee hearing.
"Low public support would have led to low-level adherence and diminished support for any future interventions," he said.
1st wave could extend into summer
Public health officials now expect the first wave of the pandemic will last through the summer in some parts of Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned this week it may take a year before life returns to normal.
In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, says Canada's first chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones.
For one, Canada used to have a public health doctor in its embassy in Beijing, a position he created in 2008 but that's been vacant since 2015.
Butler-Jones believes it should be reinstated, a recommendation he made this week to the current public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.
"You want the straight goods on what's happening," he said in an interview with The House. "It certainly would have helped in how strategically we focused what we did in terms of people entering the country, in terms of advising the public early."
Hajdu says it's an interesting idea.
"Certainly I think what's important is that we have positions available to have better intelligence on outbreaks from China, but from other parts of the world as well."
- This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated that two weeks after the March 10 briefing note Canada's case load had hit 21,000. In fact, it was one month later.Apr 11, 2020 1:46 PM ET