OTTAWA—What will it take to keep the new coronavirus illness out of crowded federal prisons? How do you protect inmates and guards if you can’t?
What’s the bare minimum number of federal employees needed to make government operations function?
How does Ottawa ensure essential services continue to operate during a pandemic? What even is essential?
Military? Certainly. Coast Guard search and rescue operations? Of course. Tax collection? Come to think of it, maybe.
Senior officials across Ottawa are up to their neck in planning all of this in anticipation of the worst — a deadly widespread outbreak in Canada as the COVID-19 epidemic races around the globe with the potential to become a full-blown worldwide pandemic.
“There’s an urgency to our preparations, yes,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair in an interview.
That’s because the profile of the virus is changing.
As of Friday, the World Health Organization reported the COVID-19 outbreak has spread to 52 countries, with nearly 84,000 cases worldwide.
The majority of confirmed cases are still inside China, where nearly 79,000 people were infected and 36,000 patients have recovered. Now, however, most worrisome is that more new coronavirus infections are being reported outside China than inside that country.
And so the WHO on Friday ramped up its evaluation of the risk of global spread accordingly, to “very high.”
In Canada, 14 cases have been confirmed — seven in B.C. and seven in Ontario — and a presumed case in Quebec is being tested by the National Microbiology Lab. If confirmed, it would be Canada’s 15th COVID-19 patient.
Health authorities, hospitals, police departments, paramedic services across the country are gearing up for more.
Since the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 outbreaks, health authorities annually refresh pandemic plans in advance of flu season.
In Ottawa, the job of setting out how federal services will operate has a boring bureaucratic name, yet it’s anything but. It’s called “business continuity” planning.
And it’s in high gear right now, not only at the Public Health Agency of Canada which has been the public face of Ottawa’s response, but also the government operations centre. That’s the nerve centre that tracks what elected decision-makers need to know or the “situational awareness” to make sure the right decisions are planned for, made and executed.
“They monitor what’s in the air and on the sea, they monitor world events but also domestic events to help us always be aware,” Blair said.
Blair said the coronavirus was on their radar early. “They were all over it” since January, he said.
It was at a Jan. 21 cabinet retreat in Winnipeg that the federal government flagged it was getting ready in a serious way.
At that point three suspected cases had tested negative, and there were no confirmed coronavirus cases in Canada.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters then that no travel restrictions were in place. But she said Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam was working with the WHO and “other international partners to make sure we’re tracking the spread of the disease and understanding its particular characteristics.”
“We are looking at the suite of measures that we will take if in fact we ascertain that the virus is moving,” she said.
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It did move. And fast.
More than five weeks later, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, says there are “linked epidemics of COVID-19 in several countries, but most cases can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases. We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities.”
Speaking in Geneva Friday, he added: “As long as that’s the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts.”
Tam, Canada’s top doctor, told CBC’s Vassy Kapelos: “I think this looks to be a very difficult virus to stop in its tracks. So the most prudent thing to do is prepare.”
The Liberal government dismisses Conservative suggestions the Canadian borders ought to have been closed early on against travellers from China. “A virus knows no borders,” says Tam.
Instead, even as 400 Canadians were flown back on government charters from quarantined zones in China and on a cruise ship in Japan, the federal government focused on public communication, to educate Canadians on symptoms to watch for, how to prevent disease spread, and what to do if they get sick.
It’s suggested Canadians stock up on a week’s worth of food and medicines, and make alternative child care or work arrangements should the outbreak worsen. It seems to be a question of when, not if.
Blair says that response and public communications may have delayed the onset of a wider outbreak while everyone prepares, and the longer that delay is, the better.
“We know that this could get much worse and we are planning and preparing and that will help us reduce and mitigate the risk to Canadians,” he says.
Blair spent two hours Friday morning at the government operations centre — the awkwardly nicknamed GOC.
Part of the federal assessment has included looking at the whole spectrum of “business continuity plans” across departments and agencies.
For example, is there enough personal protective equipment for federal front line service employees, like border guards, to keep functioning? How to ensure unemployment or pension cheques are mailed out on time to Canadians? How do you protect postal workers in a viral outbreak when their job is to go door to door? In places where the RCMP acts as a provincial front line police force, do the Mounties have staffing plans, should an outbreak in one part of the country require the force to quickly move officers around.
It’s the same kind of planning work that’s done to ensure there are enough nurses and ambulance drivers or other front line workers in hospitals, police or fire departments across the country.
“We have to continue to maintain the service levels of essential services that we provide, and if a substantial portion of your workforce gets ill or is at home self-quarantined,” said Blair. “In those circumstances, we have to make sure that we are ready.”