Canadian military units overseas await deployment of their own COVID-19 testing kits

Canadian soldiers, sailors and aircrew deployed overseas will, for the time being, rely on allies and host nations for access to COVID-19 testing kits, the Defence Department said. An order of 2,000 of the critical health tests is expected to arrive at the military's central medical depots this week.

Top general and military surgeon general say they have a plan for if troops get sick in Canada or overseas

A Canadian Armed Forces medical technician works on a simulated patient during a training exercise at the Role 2 combat hospital in Iraq in November 2016. The Department of National Defence says units deployed overseas will have to rely on allies or host nations for COVID-19 testing kits for the time being before an emergency shipment arrives. (Murray Brewster/CBC )

Canadian troops and warships deployed overseas will, for the moment, rely on allies and host nations for access to COVID-19 testing kits, while the Department of National Defence rushes to fill an emergency order. 

Approximately 2,000 kits have been ordered by the military and are due to arrive this week, spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said.

Federal health officials warned last week there's an urgent need for faster testing as the number of confirmed cases spikes in the civilian population.

The country's top military commander said the Canadian Forces surgeon general is comfortable with the current arrangements and health plans for both deployed units and those at home.

"Every Canadian unit deployed overseas has Canadian medical or local medical access," Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, told CBC News. "We have thousands deployed overseas, not just on missions, but living overseas [in staff or exchange positions]. So, they do have access to health-care systems, and yes, we have sufficient support."

How testing kits will be deployed

The military's health services group is tracking "the availability of the testing kits across the Canadian Armed Forces" and Lamirande was unable to provide a precise breakdown, because the numbers and locations on bases within Canada remain "fluid."

The new testing kits, once they arrive, will go into the military's central medical equipment depot and be "distributed based on demand" from base clinics.

"The needs of deployed units for COVID-19 testing will be considered in the distribution plan," said Lamirande. "In the interim, we are working in collaboration with our partners, through a combination of integral, allied and host nation support, to ensure deployed CAF members are provided with the best available health care, as it is always a top priority for us."

Should there be a large-scale outbreak and members become sick, they would be brought back to Canada, Vance said in a recent interview.

"If we had a very serious case, like anything else [health-wise], we'd medevac them."

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa, on March 4. He told CBC News that the Forces have sufficient stocks of medical grade personal protective equipment. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As of Friday, the Canadian military had reported three cases of COVID-19, but has indicated it will stop releasing information on the health of the force for operational security reasons.

Separate from the issue of testing,  Vance said, each base clinic and overseas unit has a supply of personal protective (PPE) medical equipment.

"We've ordered some, along with the rest of the government, to increase our stockpile," he added. "We have sufficient stocks of medical grade PPE to be able to deal with the things we know have to deal with in terms of the health of the force. The medical stuff is principally for us. There is some capability to provide medical support to others."

A Canadian Armed Forces medical technician works on a simulated patient during a training exercise in November 2016. The Department of National Defence says personnel overseas who become sick will be medevaced home. ( Murray Brewster/CBC News)

In the U.S., the Pentagon last week handed over up to five million respirator masks and other personal protective equipment to that country's Department of Health and Human Services, along with approximately 2,000 deployable ventilators. It is also providing training to civilians in the use of the equipment.

Isolation units for aircraft

The Canadian military does not have anywhere near the same kind of capability as the Americans and has not been asked to turn over any equipment. What it does have in reserve would likely be used if the Forces were called upon to deploy into hard-hit communities across the country where the civilian systems had been overwhelmed.

During the Ebola crisis a few years ago, the U.S. Air Force developed transport isolation chambers for aircraft that conduct medical evacuations. It has a limited number of those systems, a Pentagon official told a briefing last week.

The chambers are useful, not only for isolating military patients and moving them from one location to another, but could be beneficial in conducting mass civilian casualty transport.

Canada's defence department says it is aware of the American systems.

"We are looking at all options that might support the government of Canada's response to the COVID-19 situation," said Lamirande.

"While we do not have isolation kits as part of the Forward Aeromedical Evacuation capability, the RCAF has been looking to enhance this capability and is exploring different options for isolation units for a variety of our aircraft."

Vance said, however, that the advice he's received from the Forces surgeon general is that they don't need an isolation chamber, at least for evacuating military casualties. 

"You would use procedures onboard the aircraft, putting drapes up and so," he said. "We have plans to be able to do it. We're not worried."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.