Politics

Public Health Agency of Canada president resigns as COVID-19 cases spike

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is stepping down only 18 months into the job, leaving the federal agency tasked with coordinating the country's COVID-19 response without a seasoned leader.

Tina Namiesniowski says she needs to 'take a break' and 'step aside so someone else can step up'

PHAC president Tina Namiesniowski, left, appears at a Commons health committee hearing in January, along with Chief Public Officer of Health Dr. Theresa Tam. Namiesniowski announced her resignation as president in an email to staff on Friday. (House of Commons/CPAC)

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is stepping down only 18 months into the job, leaving the federal agency tasked with coordinating the country's COVID-19 response without a seasoned leader.

Tina Namiesniowski said she would be stepping aside immediately to make way for a new president.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government expects to have a replacement for Namiesniowski "in the coming days."

In a letter to staff, Namiesniowski, a long-serving bureaucrat, said she needs to "take a break" and "step aside so someone else can step up" to lead the agency as caseloads spike and testing times creep up in some parts of the country.

"You really need someone who will have the energy and the stamina to take the agency and our response to the next level," she said in internal correspondence announcing her departure, which was later released by PHAC.

"While responding to this crisis, we've done many things since then to add capacity, improve processes, take on new roles and really build up the competence that had diminished in recent years. All of this work has taken a personal toll on so many people ... I put myself in that category."

In a statement, Hajdu said Namiesniowski has shown an "unwavering commitment" and has given "incredible service" to Canada during her tenure as the head of PHAC.

"She has led a committed team of public servants who have been working flat out for months. I have seen first hand the countless hours that Tina has spent away from her family to protect Canadians," she said.

"We are all grateful. Thank you for working so hard to keep all of us safe, and all the best in your next steps."

Before her appointment to the top job at PHAC in May 2019, Namiesniowski held a number of senior postings within government. She served as the executive vice-president of the Canada Border Services Agency and was an assistant deputy minister at Agriculture Canada and Public Safety Canada.

The agency's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has been the public face of PHAC's efforts throughout this pandemic. Namiesniowski called her work "exceptional."

"She is a rock and truly inspirational. I've felt privileged to work alongside of her," she said.

PHAC has come in for criticism in recent months as Canada's response to the COVID-19 crisis has been questioned by some critics. The pandemic has killed roughly 9,200 people in this country.

The federal government's initial reluctance to close the border as the virus spread in Asia, its depleted national emergency stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early months of this pandemic, confusing guidance on the wearing of masks and other perceived failures have been cited by opposition parties in Parliament and others as examples of Canada's uneven response to COVID-19.

"We have all been working non-stop in a high pressure environment subjected to significant scrutiny and without a doubt, we've risen to the challenge," Namiesniowski said.

On Namiesniowski's watch, some scientists working for the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) complained that their early warnings about the threat of COVID-19 were ignored or inadequately addressed by senior staff at PHAC.

The network, a federal government-run monitoring and analysis unit, alerts senior officials to health risks around the globe by compiling media reports and other intelligence about outbreaks.

CBC News reported in April on concerns about the network's alerts not being as widely disseminated as they had been during past health crises.

The Globe and Mail has also reported on internal concerns about the efficacy of the reporting system after changes made in 2018 and 2019 shifted the network's focus away from monitoring global health trends to a more domestic role.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has ordered a review of the network amid the complaints.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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