COVID Emergency Response in Canada - “How is the first bite?
Updated: May 24
Op-ed - Laurent Mougeot MCIP
Emergency response delivered by civil authorities is an essential coordinated function for most public services. It requires careful planning and a disciplined approach. Incident
command systems backed up by well-trained Emergency Operation Centers are the backbones of solid response teams.
For over 2 months now, local, provincial and federal authorities have initiated a number of measures which aim to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus, which we all have come to know so well.
Efficient emergency response plans must identify a number of key elements:
A clear understanding of the risks and their calculated chronological and geographical growth.
A deference for the assessment and advice of domain specific experts (e.g. fire chief, chief medical officer).
Mitigation measures to gain control of adverse conditions and to provide pro-active responses.
Maintain law, order and an incremental response to mitigate the growth of an event as it progresses towards becoming an emergency, to becoming crisis, towards chaos and unfortunately sometimes moving onward towards full blown anarchy (we have seen numerous global crisis which have followed this exact pathway).
Ensure a sufficient capacity to address current and expected “normal” needs (e.g. structural fires, medical calls, upcoming spring floods).
Identify the role of civil response teams, private sector support groups and equally important: the citizens ‘role.
Keeping everyone informed, mostly about upcoming challenges and deployed strategies.
So, if one may ask: “How is the first bite?”
To date, the coordinated efforts of local, provincial and federal governments have been difficult to understand at best. To be fair, let us consider the magnitude of the challenge: the Coronavirus (causing COVID 19) is new, with very little available data to understand its full impact. However, since the early stages of isolated epidemics in Asia, it has been known to spread extremely quickly, broadly and to have a relatively low fatality rate. Essentially, the major challenge of the virus at that time, as it remains now, rests with its ability to quickly overwhelm the human resources and physical infrastructure of our health care systems by infecting large percentages of the population very quickly. We all remember the large hospitals built by China in the initial response stages. This is now (finally) happening across Canada by converting arenas and community centers into temporary health care facilities.
Over the world, nations monitored two major developments: when would the World Health Organization upgrade the status of these epidemics to a world Pandemic, and what would the Ro (R naught or rate of infection) of this virus would be. Understanding the basic characteristics of the virus, as limited as it was 8 weeks ago, already offered critical triggers for our public services and should have activated updated plans which had been on the shelves since the mid 2000s given our experience with SARS and H1N1.
Over the past few weeks, here is what we have seen and heard:
Mixed messages over social distancing: first from a 1 to 2-metre separation (a 100% variance within the same instructions from the same agencies) to a now firm 2-metre separation.
Civil ordinances initially authorized gathering of 250 people, and gradually adjusted the sizes to a current range of 2 to 50 individuals depending on the jurisdiction where gatherings occur. Why such a broad range? Are there Québec and Saskatchewan strains of this virus, with different Ro factors where one lives? Of course not.
Thirty days of “gentle reminders” issued dozens of times daily to all Canadians regarding the need to shelter in place still provide conflicting instructions, some looser than others. As our best, and so far only line of defense against the propagation of the virus, “staying inside” continues to be the worst respected and applied essential protocol in the country. A few jurisdictions have decided to take their own instructions more seriously and proceed with enforcement, while others continue to indulge in the “be nice and educate” mode while ignorance of the protocols puts thousands of people at serious risk - everyday! Even while managing floods, evacuated neighbourhoods are closed and constantly monitored for strict evacuation orders. And that is mostly about protecting property (i.e. looting). Not lives and public saftey as it is the case now. Why waivering so much on more serious enforcement?
Until Public Health Ontario released its projections last Friday, it was not clear that citizens fully appreciated the impact they may have on “flattening the curve” and their ability to bring such a positive impact on our health care system (workers and infrastructure). With the 12 to 24 month window to get any significant control over the pandemic now on the table, the reality of the challenges ahead brings a much needed focus on this matter.
Every day, for the past few weeks, elected officials have been reciting long lists of statistics on the number of infected individuals, hospitalized COVID patients, and fatalities. Interesting factoids for sure, but mostly irrelevant without the full context of the projections used as the foundation of our emergency plans. I would ask you to compare the current press conferences to those issued in times of wildfires and major floods near communities. These later ones are generally focus on short, medium, and long-term projections and highlight how the response plan is performing and what are the top priorities. Until April 3rd and without Ontario’s engagement, this has not been happening. Sharing historical data is not engaging for the public. To hear that 13 more infected cases were reported in the past 24 hours is, I am sorry to say, not how the authorities will capture the interest and engaged collaboration of citizens in managing the pandemic. Citizens should not be passive observers looking at statistics. This is not a hockey game. The stay at home orders, as much as they appear "passive" require significant efforts from everyone to re-organize their family lives and work arrangements. We have to rethink our food supply chain, support elders and friends in needs. What is ahead of us is much more relevant than how many folks have recovered. By the way, expect recoveries to be high. About 97% if the health care sytem maintains capacity, and possibly higher.
Very little information has been issued on critical "zones" or "hotbeds" for the propagation of the virus. Again, emergency management plans must include precise inventories of critical and fragile "points". With flood events, mapping helps to identify critical areas which should be first evacuated. In case of major fires, fire plans would also have identified chemical plants and storage buildings. Similarly, pandemic plans should include an inventory of critically at risk facilities and installations. Group homes, senior and paliative care facilities should receive particular attention and tailored responses. Is this happening?
In most traditional emergency responses, citizens are asked to step back, while they can also sometimes be called to volunteer. Now is not your standard emergency response. Citizens are key players in safeguarding the capacity of our health care system and the health and safety of our front-line workers.
Our civil coordinated response to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus must call upon all citizens to become active emergency responders by providing them with very clear and precise instructions (not an inconsistent list of wishful expectations) and inform them of the positive impact they can have.
Respecting designated (and consistent) protocols is not optional. To date, our current communication strategies remain vague on this front (i.e. they must be simplified and consistent).
Finally, politicians have had enough airtime. It is time to let experts drive and deliver the pandemic plans.
Laurent served as an accredited guest lecturer and instructor at the Canadian Emergency Preparedness College from 1997 to 2010 (Arnprior and Ottawa Campus), a period which covered SARS, H1N1 and other major natural disasters. He has participated in local recovery efforts related to Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica, Haïti’s 2010 Earthquake, Indonesia 2004 Tsunami, and Katrina (2005). The college was the only national institution with a focus on emergency preparedness, and operated from post WW II until 2010 when it was effectively closed by the Federal Government to save 30 cents/year per Canadian. Laurent has been a strong advocate to reinstate such a critical institution to support our civil response to mitigate emergency crisis.