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

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: Lookout Lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Traffic is backed up due to a crash on Highway 1. (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)
Traffic backs up on Highway 1 westbound in View Royal after crash

First responders are reportedly on the scene in View Royal

A driver stopped by Saanich police following a road rage incident on April 15 was found to be impaired, in violation of a license restriction and in a damaged vehicle. They received a 90-day driving prohibition and a 30-day vehicle impound. (Saanich Police Traffic Safety Unit/Twitter)
Driver stopped on Pat Bay Highway after road rage reports fails breathalyzer test: police

Several witnesses reported driver to Saanich police, school officer intercepted

Pacific Institution in Abbotsford. (Black Press Media file photo)
Inmate with ties to Victoria dies in Abbotsford institution

Brodie Bingley, who was sentenced for aggravated assault in Maple Ridge died April 13

The site of the proposed rental housing development at 2197 Otter Point Rd. (District of Sooke)
District of Sooke approves development with 77 rental units

New parking lot for John Phillips Memorial Park included in project

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you have a plan in place in the event of a tsunami?

Tsunamis have claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1998… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

An armed officer walks outside Cerwydden Care on Cowichan Lake Road near Skinner Road Wednesday, April 14 around 5:30 p.m. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Police standoff at Duncan apartment ends peacefully

Officers surround building as homeowner held in apartment for nearly four hours by adult son

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

The District of Sooke will continue to flower with Communities in Bloom. (Pixabay)
Sooke will bud but not bloom in provincial competition

Council scales back participation in Communities in Bloom

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

Most Read