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

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

A spokesperson for Health Canada said the government expects to have a replacement for Namiesniowski by next week.

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. CBC News has seen a copy of her letter to staff.

“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.”

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.

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.

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

Canada not yet ready to deploy rapid COVID testing devices, says health minister

Canada not yet ready to deploy rapid COVID testing devices, says health minister

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said today that Health Canada is not yet satisfied with any of the options it has been reviewing for rapid COVID-19 testing devices — and they will not be deployed across the country until regulators are satisfied they work to a certain standard.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two antigen testing devices months ago — tests that can deliver results in less than 15 minutes — Health Canada is not ready to put its stamp of approval on such tests, Hajdu told reporters at the Liberal cabinet retreat in Ottawa.

She dismissed past U.S. approvals for such devices, saying Canada would rely on its own data.

“We have not had a test submitted to Health Canada for approval yet that satisfies the regulator’s concerns around accuracy,” she said. “We’re not there yet.

“We will not at Health Canada approve a test that, in any way, endangers Canadians’ health and I will say tests that don’t have a degree of accuracy to the satisfaction of the regulators can actually create further harms in communities.”

‘False sense of security’

She said the agency has more research to do to ensure the efficacy of these devices. Some experts have been calling for the swift introduction of rapid tests in Canada, citing recent spikes in the COVID-19 caseload and long waits for conventional tests.

She said she doesn’t want Canadians flocking to pharmacies to get substandard tests that give them a “false sense of security.”

“The hold-up is the technology,” she said, when asked why Health Canada was taking so long to approve the devices.

The FDA, meanwhile, has said approved antigen tests are a safe and reliable way to determine a person’s COVID-19 status.

“Diagnostic testing is one of the pillars of our nation’s response to COVID-19 and the FDA continues to take actions to help make these critical products available,” the agency said in May.

“Antigen tests will play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19.”

Hajdu announced today that she will convene a panel of experts to help the government review its testing device strategy some seven months into the pandemic.

She said this advisory panel will “help us look at combinations of testing strategies.”

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The move comes as health experts like Dr. David Naylor, one of the country’s top doctors and a co-chair of the federal COVID-19 task force, are calling on Health Canada to make testing more accessible at convenient locations and at high-risk sites like schools and some workplaces.

Long lines for testing centres have become commonplace in many parts of the country.

People seeking tests have reported being forced to wait in line for hours at testing sites in Ottawa and Toronto — delays that have made testing a struggle for parents with young children.

While Canadians wait for Health Canada to make more devices readily available, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said today that the province is preparing to deploy some form of testing to hundreds more sites at retailers, such as pharmacies.

This testing would be mostly for asymptomatic people who want to know their COVID status, he said. Testing is already available at pharmacies in some provinces, including Alberta.

After the cabinet retreat, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted his government’s $19-billion “safe restart agreement” that will flow federal funds to the provinces and territories to help them grapple with the resurgence of the virus.

He said that some of that money could be used to bolster a province’s testing capacity.

Dr. Dick Menzies, a professor of respiratory epidemiology and an expert on tuberculosis at McGill University, said these testing delays were entirely predictable.

“It’s kind of regrettable because we could have foreseen that this was going to happen in the fall. The second wave was predicted by many when schools re-opened,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

Menzies said the government should make rapid, saliva-based testing more readily available to reduce the strain on the existing testing centres, which he said should be reserved for people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

“Saliva sampling turns out to be as good — maybe even better — but certainly as good as nasal pharyngeal swabs for COVID,” Menzies said, citing his own research on testing.

“Clearly, the sampling time is too long for the demand and the personnel. So you’ve got to look for quicker ways to sample and saliva is an obvious solution for these mobile or walk-in centres for people at low risk.”

‘Unpleasant’ and risky

He said the current nasal swab testing process is an “unpleasant” experience that routinely provokes coughing and sneezing fits among those being tested — which is risky for health care practitioners administering the test.

With saliva tests, there’s no “aerosol” or droplets being generated, he said.

“There’s no worker being exposed … it’s much safer to adopt in places like pharmacies,” he said.

The antigen rapid tests — which, depending on the device, use matter collected from a nasal or throat swab — don’t require the use of a lab to generate results.

While much faster, these tests are considered by some to be less accurate than the “gold standard” — the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing process currently in use across Canada.

If administered properly, PCR tests are highly accurate, identifying positive cases nearly 100 per cent of the time. Antigen tests are also considered highly accurate but they are not as sensitive as molecular PCR tests run through a lab.

In May, the FDA gave approvals for Quidel Corporation’s Sofia 2 SARS device through an emergency use authorization. Quidel claims its test has a 96.7 per cent sensitivity rate within five days of the onset of patient symptoms.

In July, the FDA issued approvals for Becton Dickinson’s Veritor System for Rapid Detection of SARS-CoV-2. The devices have since been deployed to 11,000 nursing homes across the U.S. to screen residents and staff.

The company said it expects to have the manufacturing capacity for 2 million tests per week by the end of September.

Canada to keep border with U.S. closed until at least Oct. 21, says source

Canada to keep border with U.S. closed until at least Oct. 21, says source

The federal government will extend the Canada-U.S. land border closure for another 30 days until Oct. 21, CBC News has learned. 

A source with direct knowledge of the situation, who spoke to CBC on the condition they not be named, said Canadians should expect the possibility the border will remain closed for longer.

The source told CBC News that the federal government is waiting to see evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is being managed efficiently before the government considers opening up non-essential travel between the two countries. 

The border has been closed to non-essential travel for months. With caseloads still high in many U.S. states, the two governments have mutually agreed to continue restricting movement across the world’s longest international border.

The closure has resulted in a dramatic drop in traffic between the two countries, although essential workers — such as truck drivers and health-care professionals — are still able to cross by land. Canadians are still able to fly to U.S. destinations.

The federal government has also moved to curb the movement of Americans through Canada on their way to Alaska. U.S. travellers destined for the northern state have been limited to five crossings in Western Canada and they must commit to taking a direct route.

In June a man travelling from Alaska to the continental United States was charged with violating Canada’s Quarantine Act. He was accused of twice failing to follow COVID-19 public safety rules while in Banff.

If he’s found to have violated a quarantine order, he could be fined up to $750,000 or sentenced to six months in jail.

U.S. travellers are barred from driving through national parks, leisure sites and tourism locations and receive a hang tag for their rear-view mirror indicating the date they must depart Canada.

However, some Banff residents have started calling the rule the “Alaska loophole” after spotting American plates around the Alberta tourism hotspot.

Pressure mounts on Health Canada to approve rapid COVID testing devices

Pressure mounts on Health Canada to approve rapid COVID testing devices

With a sudden spike in cases prompting more people to get tested, Canadians are coping with hours-long lineups at COVID-19 testing centres across the country — and some medical experts are calling on Health Canada to approve new devices to deliver faster results.

Concerned parents and their children faced four-hour waits at Ottawa’s primary testing facility on Monday. A similar scene greeted those looking for a test on Tuesday. At Toronto’s William Osler drive-thru testing centre, residents were kept waiting for more than three hours.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said today that one approach to the crush of people looking for tests could be the deployment of rapid-testing devices. Seven months into this pandemic, these devices still are not available for use in Canada because Health Canada regulators haven’t yet approved them.

“I totally agree with a number of comments from experts that we need to augment the portfolio of testing capabilities in Canada,” Tam told a press conference.

“That’s something we need to press hard at. The regulator at Health Canada has said it’s prepared to work hard to get us tests that are accurate and reliable. I think people are just trying to be careful.”

While she urged caution, Tam said that “right now, I think, is the time to really accelerate getting Canadians this capacity.”

Watch: Dr. Theresa Tam on rapid COVID-19 tests

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr Theresa Tam spoke with reporters on Parliament Hill on Tuesday. 1:40

Tam’s comments come after Dr. David Naylor, one of the country’s leading doctors and a co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 task force, urged regulators to give Canadians more testing options ahead of an anticipated fall surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We really desperately need some rapid testing to be done at points of congregation, or points of meetings, so that you can have use of some form of salivary testing or rapid nucleic acid testing, or even antigen testing in schools and work sites. That would really help things here,” Naylor said in an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics on Monday.

A rapid test, or a test that uses antigen technology, can produce results in minutes and can be used in a wide range of settings, such as doctors’ offices, pharmacies, walk-in clinics and long-term care homes.

Some public health experts also have said rapid tests should be sent to schools and some workplaces to offer on-the-spot results in high-risk settings.

The antigen tests — which, depending on the device, use matter collected from a nasal or throat swab — don’t require the use of a lab to generate results.

While much faster, these tests are considered by some to be less accurate than the “gold standard” — the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing process currently in use across Canada.

If administered properly, PCR tests are highly accurate, identifying positive cases nearly 100 per cent of the time. Antigen tests are also considered highly accurate but they are not as sensitive as molecular PCR tests run through a lab.

Two new tests approved in U.S.

While Health Canada has been reviewing the efficacy of these antigen tests for months, U.S. agencies fast-tracked two such devices in the summer and they are already in wide use there.

In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave approvals for Quidel Corporation’s Sofia 2 SARS device through an emergency use authorization.

According to the National Institutes of Health, thousands of Quidel analyzers were in place across the United States as of July. The analyzers can give electronic results within 15 minutes. Quidel claims its test has a 96.7 per cent sensitivity rate within five days of the onset of patient symptoms.

People line up to take a coronavirus test in the field outside the Brewer Park assessment centre in Ottawa on Sept. 14. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

In July, the FDA issued approvals for Becton Dickinson’s Veritor System for Rapid Detection of SARS-CoV-2; the devices have since been deployed to 11,000 nursing homes across the U.S. to screen residents and staff. The company said it expects to have the manufacturing capacity for 2 million tests per week by the end of September.

The company also announced Monday that it is investigating complaints about a “small number” of false-positives in some homes.

In August, six states announced a plan to bulk buy millions of tests from Quidel and Becton Dickinson to ramp up the use of rapid antigen testing to help detect outbreaks more quickly.

“With severe shortages and delays in testing … the states are banding together to acquire millions of faster tests to help save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, in announcing the multi-state pact.

Both companies behind these devices and a third, Korean-based SD Biosensor, Inc., have applied for Health Canada approvals.

As of Tuesday, all are listed as “under review.”

A health care worker does a test at a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre at the Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for the Health Canada said antigen tests “are being prioritized for review … Health Canada continues to review all applications as quickly as possible without compromising patient safety.”

“There’s a whole regulatory process that needs to be obviously respected for all these new tests, and potential new tools in the toolbox. We need to know the right way to use them and in the right context,” added Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief medical officer. “It may well be they don’t perform as well as the PCR.”

But even if these antigen tests are not quite as accurate, Naylor said, they could be a crucial line of defence — and because of their lower cost and faster results, someone could take the test multiple times to weed out errors.

When such tests show someone has COVID-19, he said, that person should be tested again immediately to confirm the result.

“That test will help rule out the false positive. If after those two tests you still got a positive, you say, ‘OK, let’s do a swab or send the swab to the public health lab,'” said Naylor.

Cabinet weighing housing plan and EI reform as government prepares fall agenda

Cabinet weighing housing plan and EI reform as government prepares fall agenda

The federal cabinet will meet for several days next week to finalize a throne speech and a fall agenda that’s likely to include significant investments in housing and a long-term overhaul of the employment insurance system, senior government sources tell CBC News.

The government also will use its speech from the throne on Sept. 23 to signal its intention to make child care more widely available and to launch a green recovery plan.

But while there have been indications lately that the government would use the speech to launch an aggressive environmental agenda, sources say the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across the country means the immediate focus will remain on the public health crisis and the economic challenges it has created.

“We are still living in an emergency,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Toronto on Wednesday. “The last thing that anyone wants is to have to once again shut down our economies and suspend our lives to try and counter a massive second wave.”

That doesn’t mean the green agenda will be absent from the throne speech. Cabinet is expected to deal with several environmental proposals when it meets next week for a two-day retreat followed by a formal cabinet meeting, and there will be a green component to many of the economic stimulus measures that will be rolled out in the coming months.

Bad timing for a ‘green’ agenda?

But two senior Liberal sources expressed concern about being perceived by the public as focusing too heavily on a green agenda while parents are worried about sending their kids back to school and business owners are trying to hold on to what they have.

“There’s a sensitivity to being perceived to hijack the moment for a green recovery,” said one senior Liberal source.

So the government’s immediate priorities, say sources, will be measures to limit the resurgence of the coronavirus and to ensure Canadian workers and companies have the financial supports they need to survive the pandemic.

A key part of that will be continuing the income replacement programs and wage subsidies that have helped to support the gradual reopening of the economy — while also signalling the need for a long-term overhaul of the employment insurance system.

Changes are coming to EI

The dated EI computer system was able to pump out Canada Emergency Response Benefit cheques to millions of Canadians — but the EI program itself proved to be unable to support the gig economy workers and self-employed Canadians who lost all or part of their income during the pandemic.

“Forty per cent of people who went on the CERB would not qualify for EI. That’s something the federal government needs to fix,” said a senior federal official speaking on background.

Multiple sources say the federal government also will signal a plan to invest in low-income housing to deal with a homelessness problem that became much more conspicuous during the lockdowns.

“We know that there is a sore need for it,” said the senior official. “The homeless are much more visible because nobody else is on the street.”

A homeless camp under an overpass in Calgary on May 20, 2020. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Federal officials also say they expect the housing plan will create construction and renovation jobs as new houses are built and existing ones are retrofitted to be more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

The speech also will commit to spending on long-term care to address the failures that led to the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in Canada, and promise new money for child care to help parents — especially women — go back to work.

Sources say the speech will also attempt to brace people for the long haul by reminding them that this country is still a long way from returning to its pre-pandemic state.

“Where we are is in a place that isn’t going to get better much sooner,” said the senior government official. “The global context is not going to change between today and next spring and next fall.”

While bracing people for the immediate future, the throne speech also will — in broad strokes only — outline Trudeau’s longer-term plans for the economy. Trudeau has spoken repeatedly about his desire to “build back better” after the pandemic passes.

Sources say the specifics of that project will be fleshed out during the fall, with more details likely coming in a fiscal update in either November or December.

WE Charity winding down operations in Canada after student grants scandal

WE Charity winding down operations in Canada after student grants scandal

After months in the political spotlight and pointed questions about its role in a summer student grants contract, WE Charity is winding down its operations in Canada.

The move comes as the charity — like many other non-profits in this country — faces a cash crunch as donations dip due to the pandemic. WE also acknowledges that it found itself in the middle of a political scandal over the student grants contract that it was “ill-equipped” to fight.

In a media statement, the charity said the fallout from its failed effort to administer a $912-million contribution agreement on behalf of the federal government has made fundraising difficult and the “financial math for the charity’s future is clear.”

“Through decisive action to preserve our savings, sell our assets and establish an endowment, we hope to sustain global projects for the long-term, like our hospital, college and agricultural learning centre that meet critical needs of children and families,” Craig Kielburger, co-founder of the charity, said in the statement.

The charity said a number of its corporate sponsorships have been cancelled and it doesn’t have the cash on hand to keep funding the projects it supports around the world.

WE says it will liquidate some of its assets to create an endowment fund to support projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa that are underway but not yet completed.

The charity said it would sell most of its real estate in Toronto, including its “global learning centre,” to fund those projects.

Virtually all of the charity’s operations in Canada will come to an end. The charity said it would no longer provide educational resources to teachers or employ “youth service coaches.”

“We are saddened by these developments. This year marks the 25th anniversary of WE Charity Canada. We planned to launch an endowment this year, but not in this way,” said Marc Kielburger, the other co-founder.

The WE Charity liquidation comes just days after the organization repaid the federal government all the cash it had received to administer the ill-fated student grant program, which was supposed to pair university students with volunteer opportunities over the summer. A spokesperson for Youth Minister Bardish Chagger confirmed WE had repaid $30 million last week.

WE Charity was awarded a $43.5 million contract to manage the $900 million student volunteer grant program. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-finance minister Bill Morneau did not recuse themselves from cabinet talks on the deal, despite both having family ties to the organization. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is carrying out investigations on Trudeau and Morneau’s actions.

The federal Conservatives have been calling on WE to release a series of documents the Toronto-based youth organization promised to hand over to a House of Commons committee before Prime Minister Trudeau prorogued Parliament. Today, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole again called on WE to “immediately release the documents.”