OTTAWA—Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski is a rookie MP from Thunder Bay, new to Ottawa, new to politics, but not new to a medical crisis.
A trained emergency doctor, he worked through the SARS and H1N1 epidemics in emergency rooms, and has practised in remote First Nations communities, Africa and the South Pacific.
Powlowski, 60, holds two law degrees and has an expertise in global health law. He wrote health law and policy for the World Health Organization for two years. He worked with and was a friend of Dr. Carlo Urbani, the first World Health Organization officer who identified SARS as a new and lethal disease.
So Powlowski is watching the unfolding pandemic with a keen eye on the past and on what the COVID-19 outbreak could become.
He hopes for the best, says maybe we’ll get lucky, and it will wane.
But in an interview on his way to a Liberal caucus briefing on the novel coronavirus, Powlowski says the pressing question for him is how well prepared are we? The answer, in his view: maybe not so much.
“I think everybody ought to be concerned as to whether we’re prepared,” he said.
“I don’t think any country in the world is prepared for a possible large epidemic, so it’s no knock on our government, our system, to question whether we’re prepared or not,” he said. “Certainly, if we have any sizable epidemic it’s going to require a lot of resources, financial and health-care personnel. And the health care system is already, as it stands, fairly stretched.”
Two weeks ago, Powlowski grilled federal officials about Canada’s response to the spreading outbreak crisis.
He has a rumpled, bemused style of asking questions — uncannily reminiscent of the TV detective Lt. Frank Columbo — and so it pays to pay attention to where he’s going.
Back on Feb. 26, he pushed the Public Health Agency’s deputy chief Dr. Howard Njoo about why Ottawa had issued a limited warning to avoid-all-travel to Hubei province.
“Why not the rest of China? I mean, clearly there are numerous other provinces with thousands of cases of coronavirus. Why not them? Why not South Korea? Why not people who’ve specifically come back from Qom in Iran or the Lombardy region of Italy, places where we know there have been outbreaks?” he asked.
It would be several days later that federal officials expanded their advisories to those places, as all three countries became global hot spots for the epidemic racing around the world.
At the same meeting, Powlowski asked whether the federal agency and the broader health system were ready for what he called the “massive burden” that could come.
When he got a vague answer from bureaucrats, Powlowski wryly persisted: “Canada doesn’t have the capacity to build a 1,000-bed hospital in a week like China,” he said.
After the Trudeau government unveiled its $1 billion COVID-19 federal package on Wednesday, Powlowski told the Star he welcomed the measures, especially the aid for hospitals and equipment.
He said he was still hopeful the virus could be contained: “Who knows? And it may be totally confined but I don’t think we can, and nobody can, predict where this is going to go. And I think we have to be prepared for all eventualities.”
Hours later he pressed federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, whose Thunder Bay riding borders his, for more answers, following up on Opposition questions about gaps in critical care capacity.
He asked, as the Conservatives and NDP had, if the potential for severe illness is borne out, would there be enough ICU beds? Would there be enough ventilators? How would Ottawa respond? Using the federal government’s own scenario numbers, he said: “If we had epidemic in Thunder Bay of 1,000 cases, that’s less than one per cent of our population, not that many really, but that still means 50 people might need ICU or a ventilator.”
Powlowski pointed out there are only 22 ventilators in his hometown now. “So what are we gonna do in order to ensure that people who need a ventilator are going to have a ventilator?” Would Ottawa look at setting up ICU beds in hotels, as the U.S. was contemplating, in a former psychiatric hospital? Would it tap the resources of the military’s Disaster Assistance Response Team if there was a concentrated outbreak somewhere?
Hajdu said money for new equipment like ventilators would come out of the $500 million aid package for provinces and territories announced Wednesday. And the feds will help place bulk-purchases of more equipment, if necessary.
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She said, however, that’s why the federal government hopes to stave off the spread of infections, so there is no surge in hospitals all at once.
Powlowski persisted: “So $500 million for 10 provinces and territories, that doesn’t seem like maybe a lot of money. Depends what happens with the epidemic,” he said. “Is there any extra money available and are we prepared to spend it?”
Hajdu replied: “The short answer is yes, this is the down payment for provinces and territories to make sure they are equipped for any potential surge they may see. Should there need to be more we will not hesitate to ensure that the money is there to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”
It was an answer Powlowski, finally, was happy to hear.