Health Minister Patty Hajdu listens at a COVID-19 press conference in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. An interim examination of why the federal government’s pandemic early warning system failed to send up a formal alert on COVID-19 has been released. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

Health Minister Patty Hajdu listens at a COVID-19 press conference in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. An interim examination of why the federal government’s pandemic early warning system failed to send up a formal alert on COVID-19 has been released. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

Canada’s pandemic ‘alert’ system didn’t operate as intended for COVID-19: report

The Global Public Health Intelligence Network didn’t operate as intended at the onset of the pandemic

An interim review of why Ottawa’s early pandemic warning system failed to issue a formal alert on COVID-19 has described a lack of detailed knowledge of the system by senior managers.

The audit dated Feb. 26, and released on Saturday, was ordered by federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu after reports the Global Public Health Intelligence Network didn’t operate as intended at the onset of the pandemic.

The interim report concluded the monitoring system did identify the outbreak of the pneumonia that would become COVID-19 on the night of Dec. 30, 2019, and included this information from Wuhan, China, in a special report to Canadian public health officials the next day.

But the report notes that without sending up a formal alert, international partners that rely on Canada’s information were left to rely on other sources.

“That (the system) identified early open‑source signals of what would become COVID‑19 and promptly alerted senior management does not mean that the system is operating as smoothly or as clearly as it could and should,” the report concluded.

“As international subscribers only receive alerts, some jurisdictions did not receive an early signal directly.”

The review panel includes Mylaine Breton and Paul Gully, who are both experts in public health and health policy, and Margaret Bloodworth, who has a background in national security.

The panel’s report also found that prior to the pandemic, the alert system lacked standard operating procedures. Senior managers also didn’t fully understand the rationale and the intended audience for alerts, it added.

The system is set up to gather thousands of internet-based media reports from around the globe, which are narrowed down to items that are deemed credible enough for public health officials to explore further and compiled into a daily report.

But more serious items about potential pandemics and other risks were to result in “alerts,” where subscribers are told “there is a signal they may wish to take notice of or follow up on,” the report said.

The review found there were no written procedures governing the issuance of these alerts prior to fall 2020.

“The panel has also heard from some senior management directly overseeing (the system) who could not describe the purpose or audience for alerts, and may not have had a complete understanding of their intent,” the report read.

The system was set up in the 1990s to scan the internet for open source news and early signals of health threats. Over time, it received upgrades to allow it to use human analysis to track the threats and — according to the review — provided the World Health Organization with about 20 per cent of its early-stage intelligence on epidemics.

There’s been a wide variation of the frequency of these alerts over the past 10 years, with 887 sent out in 2009 — largely in relation to the H1N1 pandemic — followed by 198 in 2013, corresponding with the H7N9 outbreak. Only one, in contrast, was issued in May 2019.

The panelists say it’s clear that “some form of direction was given to pause the alert process,” and that the level of approval for alerts was elevated and then downgraded at least once.

However, the authors said so far they haven’t seen any written documentation on the timeline of those changes, who requested them and why they might have occurred.

The panel will continue its review in the coming months by looking deeper into the context of how the system operates. That includes a high degree of staff turnover and a decline in the number of internal experts with public health credentials.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

Twin falls in Yoho National Park. Yoho is one of the mountain parks whose draft management plan is now available for review. (Claire Palmer photo)
Local input sought to shape future of mountain national parks

Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks are amongst those seeking input

The last 400 bear-proof garbage bins will be rolled out this spring. Keri Sculland/Star Photo
The bear-proof garbage bins are a must to keep bears out of town. Keri Sculland/Star Photo
Bear bins required as weather warms

The Town is reminding people to make use of their bear bins now that the bears are back in town

Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship in the world. Photo provided and colourized by Jiri Ferdinand.
QUIZ: How much do you know about the world’s most famous shipwreck?

Titanic sank 109 years ago today, after hitting an iceberg

In a feature article published April 10, 2021 in The Times of London, ‘headlined British Columbia has what it takes to rival Napa Valley,’ the valley is praised extensively for its natural beauty and wine. (File photo)
From the U.K. with love: Okanagan wine, scenery receives international praise

The Times of London newspaper recently featured the valley in a wine and travel piece

Arlene Howe holds up a picture of her son, Steven, at a memorial event for drug overdose victims and their families at Kelowna’s Rotary Beach Park on April 14. Steven died of an overdose at the age of 32 on Jan. 31, 2015. (Aaron Hemens - Kelowna Capital News)
Moms Stop the Harm members placed crosses Wednesday morning, April 14, on Rotary Beach in memory of children lost to drug overdoses. (Aaron Hemens - Capital News)
Kelowna mothers remember children lost to the opioid crisis

It has been five years since illicit drug deaths was announced a public health emergency

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency declaration

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

A Keremeos family lost their home after a fire shortly before midnight on April 13. No injuries were reported. (Contributed)
Keremeos home destroyed in late-night fire

The family inside was unharmed

Naloxone
Op/Ed: Interior Health CEO speaks on five years of strides and challenges in overdose crisis

In 2020, close to 4,000 people across IH had access to opioid medications

Somewhere in the pack being celebrated by his teammates is Vernon Vipers forward Zack Tonelli, who scored in overtime Wednesday afternoon, April 14, to give the Snakes a 6-5 win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in B.C. Hockey League pod play at Kal Tire Place. (Liza Mazurek - Vernon Vipers Photography)
Vernon Vipers bite Salmon Arm Silverbacks in OT

Snakes blow 5-3 third-period lead, rally in extra time for 6-5 pod play result over rivals

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

New parking meters have been installed on Main Street, Ellis Street, Front Street, Nanaimo Avenue and Padmore Avenue in Penticton. (City of Penticton photo)
Pay parking now in effect in downtown Penticton

A spot downtown will now cost you $2 per hour

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 1, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps to 1,168 Wednesday, nearly 400 in hospital

Now 120 coronavirus patients in intensive care, six more deaths

Moss covered branches are seen in the Avatar Old Growth Forest near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, B.C. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. blockades aimed at protecting old-growth forests reveal First Nation split

Two Pacheedaht chiefs say they’re ‘concerned about the increasing polarization over forestry activities’ in the territory

Most Read