The federal government plans to clarify its pandemic travel rules for autoworkers after complaints from the industry, which says it’s being hurt by ambiguity at the border.
At issue is how border agents deal with autoworkers moving between facilities in Canada and the U.S. Industry officials have expressed frustration that Canadian guards don’t seem to have clear instructions, forcing some workers to quarantine when they re-enter Canada but not others, and that it risks doing economic damage.
On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair committed to performing a quick review of the policy during a virtual meeting with auto-sector representatives, said one meeting participant, Flavio Volpe.
That development came after CBC News and other media reported on mounting annoyance in the sector, with industry representatives fuming that they had tried and failed to reach Blair for months.
Volpe, who heads Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said the minister opened Tuesday’s meeting by expressing a desire to work with the sector to clarify the rules.
He said the sides set up a group to work on changes — and that they planned to do it quickly.
“We expect that we’re going to see some substantive clarification in days, and that’s very helpful,” Volpe said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m expecting specific clarification that’s going to make it easier for essential automotive people to do their job. And we have that commitment from Minister Blair and from the [Canada Border Services Agency]…. I think that we’ve broken through here.”
Critical moment in the auto sector
What had the companies complaining was the alleged lack of clarity on how the industry’s technical workers and executives should be treated while re-entering Canada after doing work at U.S. facilities.
They said the rules are applied inconsistently — even on the same day at the same border crossing — which has resulted in company employees being forced into quarantine.
They said this is putting Canadian auto companies at a competitive disadvantage against American rivals at a critical moment for the sector.
Companies are now competing for a wave of contracts related to a pair of developments: the ongoing emergence of electric vehicles and the new supply chains established under the updated NAFTA.
Volpe said that at the start of the meeting, the minister said essential travel for auto-parts employees and executives is not a significant new risk for public health, and that he wanted to find a solution.
Volpe said the sector is not pushing for a complete reopening of the border. “We’re talking about a clarification for essential business travel,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Blair, Mary-Liz Power, said the government will continue to enforce public-health protocols at the border but is open to making adjustments.
“The government is listening to all sectors of the economy as it develops further protocols to identify and enforce restrictions for essential travellers, including technicians from the auto sector,” she said in an email.
“We have been clear that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic will adapt quickly to this rapidly evolving public health threat.”
Ryan Reynolds has a confession to make: He’s “Bruce” the Ottawa Public Health intern who accidentally sent out a tweet on Super Bowl Sunday that congratulated the winner of the big game without removing the placeholder text.
At least, that’s according to a tweet from the OPH account.
There’s been a lot said lately about our dear social media intern, Bruce. And now, Bruce would like to say a few words…<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SteadyAsSheGoes?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SteadyAsSheGoes</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BruceReynolds?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BruceReynolds</a> <a href=”https://t.co/VCObMQWNq2″>pic.twitter.com/VCObMQWNq2</a>
After the Super Bowl this year, the Ottawa Public Health (OPH) twitter account sent out a post congratulating the winner.
Just one problem, the name of the winning team was missing, and the tweet seemed to imply that an employee named Bruce may have hit send too early.
WHAT AN AMAZING <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SuperBowlLV?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SuperBowlLV</a>!! Congratulations to the (*Bruce, make sure to put the winning team’s name here)<br><br>Thanks to everyone who stayed home & watched the game w/members of their household. We know this wasn’t the usual way to enjoy the game, & we thank you for your efforts. <a href=”https://t.co/gKD53I2bB9″>pic.twitter.com/gKD53I2bB9</a>
The post got thousands of likes and interactions from people who believed that Bruce had really messed up.
The next day, OPH piggybacked on its popularity with a thread explaining that the post wasn’t a mistake — rather it was a deliberate opportunity to discuss how to think critically about information online.
(i) using that placeholder image makes no sense. None. It just seems like a redundant amount of work to have made it, no?<br><br>(ii) it’s posted via Twitter & a quick scan of our tweets shows we always use the same platform when scheduling (i.e. it was not a pre-scheduled tweet) (2/4) <a href=”https://t.co/Z09o3H85pS”>pic.twitter.com/Z09o3H85pS</a>
“Btw, we’re so touched by the outpouring of support for dear Bruce (who doesn’t exist, btw). It’s nice to see such kindness out there. Be critical of what you see online. Misinformation has consequences that go far beyond the wellbeing of ‘Bruce,’ ” read the final tweet in the thread.
Enter Reynolds, the Golden Globe-nominated star of Hollywood blockbusters like Marvel’s Deadpool franchise, and an active, generous Twitter user.
According to an email from OPH, the actor has been following them since before the pandemic and reached out earlier this week to compliment their work.
They got to talking and OPH pitched him the idea for a video where he admits to being Bruce the intern. He agreed and shot it for free.
In the video, Reynolds suggests he tweets for OPH from time to time, but simply forgot to finish that particular post.
While he said there’s nothing he can do about his mistake now, what people can do is stick to the COVID-19 basics, such as hand-washing, masking, distancing and getting vaccinated when it’s their turn.
“We were, to say the least, delighted when Mr. Reynolds agreed to participate,” OPH said. “We appreciate that Mr. Reynolds took the time out of his busy schedule to help us share this important public health message.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is warning provinces that there will be yet more disruptions to the supply of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine shots later this month, according to a document obtained by CBC News.
The Massachusetts-based company told Canadian officials last week that the shipments for the week of Feb. 1 would be reduced by 20-25 per cent, and now it appears this month’s second shipment is also likely to be lower than expected.
“Moderna reduced shipment quantities for the week of 1-7 Feb. (from 230,400 to 180,000 doses). The week of 22 Feb. will also be impacted, but Moderna cannot confirm allocations for that week yet,” the document reads.
The document was prepared by PHAC on Jan. 29, and signed by Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics.
Fortin said last week that Moderna was on track to send 249,000 doses the week of Feb. 22. If there is a delivery reduction similar to what has been reported this week, then as many as 62,250 doses could be punted to a later date.
The Health Canada website that forecasts just how many Moderna shots will be delivered to the provinces and territories each week has been scrubbed of any data related to that Feb. 22 shipment.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was repeatedly asked in question period Wednesday whether Moderna would send the doses it promised at the end of the month.
Trudeau refused to answer but maintained the government is still expecting to have six million doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna products on hand by the end of March.
WATCH: Trudeau is questioned about possible Moderna delays
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is questioned by Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner on Wednesday. 2:35
While Trudeau has made that promise for months, the PHAC document sent to the provinces includes no information about how many shots will be delivered by Moderna in March.
“All quantities to be determined pending direction from the manufacturer,” the document reads.
To meet the prime minister’s target, more than 3.5 million doses of the two products will have to be delivered in the month of March alone — or roughly 885,000 doses a week.
Pfizer to ramp up deliveries
Trudeau said last week that while Moderna deliveries would be reduced this week, they would then revert to higher quantities at month’s end — an assertion that is now in question given the PHAC’s communications with the provinces.
“We are of course watching closely on that supply chain, but the announcement Moderna has made on a reduction of about 20 per cent across the board on deliveries for this coming week is only for this shipment and should be returned to normal on the next shipment,” Trudeau told reporters Friday.
In addition to the Moderna delays, Pfizer is sending nearly 80 per cent fewer doses than expected this week and next. However, the U.S. pharmaceutical giant expects to ship as many as 335,000 doses the week of Feb. 15 and 395,000 doses the week of Feb. 22.
A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called news of more Moderna disruptions a “devastating” development.
“Canada’s daily vaccination rate is the lowest in the G7 – and we have no domestic manufacturing capacity. Now, we’ve learned that there are no confirmed shipments of Moderna vaccines after this week,” O’Toole said.
“We need the government to succeed in securing vaccines for the sake of all Canadians – but Justin Trudeau is letting us down. Every cancelled delivery of vaccines, every delay of vaccines, means Canada has to wait longer to turn the corner in this pandemic,” he said.
Canada’s main airlines have agreed to cancel service to the Caribbean and Mexico and the federal government is introducing new mandatory quarantine rules as it tries to discourage international travel.
This morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Air Transat have agreed to suspend service to some sun destinations starting this Sunday until April 30, and will be making arrangements with their customers who are in these regions now to organize flights home.
“With the challenges we currently face with COVID-19, both here at home and abroad, we all agree that now is just not the time to be flying,” said Trudeau outside his home at Rideau Cottage.
Starting at 11:59 p.m. ET on Feb. 3, all international passenger, private and charter flights, including from the U.S., will land at the Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal airports. Cargo-only flights will remain exempt.
The prime minister said the government will soon introducing mandatory PCR testing at the airport for people returning to Canada “as soon as possible in the coming weeks.” That’s on top of the pre-boarding test already required.
WATCH | Prime minister introduces new restrictions for international travel:
Justin Trudeau announced that Canada’s main airlines have agreed to suspend service to sun destinations until April 30. 3:13
Travellers will then have to wait up to three days at a government-approved hotel for their test results, at their own expense, which Trudeau said is expected to be more than $ 2,000.
Transport Canada said there will be “very limited exceptions.”
Those with a negative test will then be able to finish their 14-day quarantine at home, with increased surveillance. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam added that returnees will also be swabbed on day 10.
She also said travellers who have been vaccinated abroad will still be subject to the quarantine rules, but added that’s under discussion.
“We know that just one case of the variant that comes in could cause significant challenges and that’s why we need to take extra measures,” Trudeau said.
“Yes, it is extremely low, the percentage of cases that are traced back to international travel, but it’s not zero.”
He also said that, in the coming weeks, Canada will begin requiring non-essential travellers to show a negative test before entry at the land border with the U.S.
Ed Sims, president and CEO of WestJet, said the federal government asked the airlines to temporarily shutter some of their flights.
“The government asked, and we agreed,” said Sims.
“While we know that air travel is responsible for less than two per cent of cases since the start of the crisis, and even less today, we recognize the Government of Canada’s ask is a precautionary measure.”
Air Canada issued a statement saying the decision won’t have much impact on their cash burn, given already reduced levels of travel.
“Air Canada believes a collaborative approach with the Government of Canada involving all air carriers is the best means to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially given concerns around the variants of COVID- 19 and travel during the Spring Break period,” said company president Calin Rovinescu. Customers with booked flights to any of the 15 impacted destinations will be offered full refunds, he added.
When asked why other vacation destinations, including Florida, aren’t part of the suspensions, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government looked at the most popular locations.
“There is a voluntary agreement and understanding with the airlines that it’s best to suspend their airlines. Now for people who are travelling to the U.S., they will be subjected to the same requirements that we subject all arrivals to,” he said.
“What we’re doing is we’re calling on all Canadians to cancel their flights, not just to the Caribbean, not just to Mexico, to all destinations. The prime minister has been clear for a while. I’m repeating it right now, we’re calling on all Canadians to please cancel your vacation.”
Friday’s move follows weeks of mounting political pressure on the federal government to tighten up border travel.
Canada’s move is not without precedent. Australia has been requiring most travellers to quarantine at a government-arranged hotel for 14 days for $ 2,800 AUD per adult and $ 4,620 AUD for a family of four.
The U.K. introduced similar measures on Thursday and now requires citizens arriving from dozens of high-risk countries to quarantine in hotels for 10 days at their own expense.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said his party was the first to ask to secure the border at the start of the pandemic and the Liberals were slow to act.
“Lockdowns and restrictions were put in place to buy governments time to get permanent solutions like vaccines, rapid testing, variant testing capacity, and therapeutics – these tools now exist,” he said in a statement.
“The problem is, Justin Trudeau hasn’t succeeded in bringing them to widespread use in Canada. We need to be using these tools to reduce quarantine times, like our allies around the world are doing.”
Canada has had a ban on non-essential travel into the country by anyone who isn’t a citizen or permanent resident since March, but banning the flow of Canadians in and out of the country is a thornier task.
People who return from abroad for non-essential reasons must quarantine for two weeks, or risk hefty financial penalties or jail time — a measure that’s also been in place since March.
As of earlier this month, most travellers must also show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before arriving in Canada.
Air passengers entering Canada will soon need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before arriving in the country, the federal government announced today.
Under the new protocol, travellers must receive a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within a 72-hour period prior to boarding a plane. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he expects the new rule will be in force within a week.
The measure does not replace the federal government’s mandatory 14-day quarantine period, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair warned.
“This is not an alternative to quarantine. It’s an additional layer,” Blair said during a public health briefing.
He said Ottawa is discussing implementing more testing protocols at land points of entry with a number of provincial health authorities, but added that effort involves “issues of some complexity” the government is still working through.
The federal government hasn’t fully explained how the pre-boarding testing will be administered to incoming travellers, though Transport Minister Marc Garneau — who is in talks with airlines and officials in his department — is expected to share more details Thursday.
WATCH | Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on new COVID-19 measures for air travel:
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair outlines enhanced COVID-19 measures for travellers returning to Canada, including plans to reinforce public health messaging in airports and new requirements for a negative COVID-19 test before re-entry into the country. 1:58
Lack of information ‘causing panic,’ Conservatives say
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner criticized the Liberal government over the timing of the announcement and said the lack of policy specifics will lead to anxiety and confusion for Canadians abroad.
“I’m glad to hear that the Trudeau Liberals are finally taking our advice and looking at implementing testing protocols for international travellers returning to Canada,” she said in a media statement.
“However, the lack of details around this announcement is causing panic among Canadians currently abroad. The government has had months to implement a system and today put forward a haphazard announcement that is a response to headlines rather than an actual thoughtful and transparent plan.”
Where can Canadians currently abroad get information on this new requirement? Will the federal government be providing a portal or will this responsibility also be downloaded onto already strapped airlines?
A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, said the provincial government is pleased the federal government responded to Ford’s “ongoing calls for the federal government to take action at our borders.”
“This is welcome news,” said Ivana Yelich. “We look forward to seeing further progress by the federal government when it comes to getting pre-departure testing in place at Toronto Pearson International Airport.”
In response to Wednesday’s news, the National Airlines Council of Canada said the country’s aviation industry has been calling for a more coordinated testing approach “to avoid a rushed and disjointed rollout” of testing requirements.
“Today’s announcement occurred without prior coordination with industry, and with many major operational and communication details still to be determined,” council president Mike McNaney said in a media statement.
“At a broader level, the announcement only addresses one element of the path forward — the utilization of testing to help further protect public health. We strongly believe it must also be utilized in conjunction with measures to reduce quarantine levels, as is being done in countries all around the world.”
An industry source — who spoke to CBC News on the condition of confidentiality — said the airlines were “totally blindsided by the announcement.”
“Airlines were not consulted,” said the source. “It was clear to them that the government had not studied whether or not PCR tests are even available and what the rules would be around who should be denied boarding.”
Blair underlined that the point of the new requirement is not to shorten quarantine times and said it’s “important not to conflate the two issues.”
Travellers unable to get tested won’t be left behind
In an interview with CBC News, LeBlanc said it will be up to travellers to arrange for PCR tests themselves, given that those embarking on non-essential trips overseas have chosen already to flout public health guidelines.
“The Government of Canada obviously is not in a position to set up in hotels or all-inclusive resorts or Canadian consulates,” he said.
Travellers who are unable to procure tests before their flights home won’t be stranded abroad, LeBlanc said. Immediately upon their return to Canada, he said, those passengers will be required to isolate at federally-approved sites until they obtain negative test results and meet other quarantine commitments.
The minister said it would be “irresponsible” for any Canadian traveller to sidestep the testing requirements.
He added that pre-boarding testing would not affect Alberta’s ongoing pilot project for international travellers, which allows people to leave quarantine if they receive a negative test after returning to Canada.
Border agency boosts airport presence
The additional measure comes as Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips is under fire over news that he had travelled to the Caribbean island of St. Barts for a personal vacation earlier this month. Phillips is on his way back to Canada after Ontario Premier Doug Ford demanded his return.
Quebec Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand has also received criticism for visiting Barbados during the holidays, a trip Arcand now says he regrets.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) will also be beefing up its presence at airports across Canada to ensure travellers are adhering to public health guidelines, Blair said.
“Additional border officers will be present at various positions to reinforce compliance messaging,” the minister said, adding that teams already have been sent to customs and baggage areas and inspection lines to speak to travellers about their obligations — and the consequences of failing to follow the rules.
The federal government has advised against non-essential travel outside Canada since the start of the pandemic, though officials noted Wednesday that about two per cent of COVID-19 cases have been brought into the country from overseas.
The federal government has launched an $ 850,000 digital-based ad campaign warning Canadians about the perils of travelling abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, which could include grounded flights or lax health rules at their destination.
Several of the new ads target snowbirds, including a video posted on Facebook and Twitter in which a forlorn older man lies in a hospital bed while sombre music plays in the background. A caption at the bottom of the screen warns that seniors are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.
The government launched the ad campaign in November “on various digital platforms” and travel websites “to reach multiple target audiences,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jason Kung said in an email. The campaign will run until March 2021 during peak travel times, he said.
To all <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/snowbirds?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#snowbirds</a>: <br><br>If you decide to travel abroad for essential reasons, please note that local public health measures may be less strict than those in 🇨🇦, putting you at greater risk of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> infection. <a href=”https://t.co/9Gm27nkKTq”>https://t.co/9Gm27nkKTq</a> <a href=”https://t.co/TFetYRA8SB”>pic.twitter.com/TFetYRA8SB</a>
Kung didn’t provide details about the individual ads. CBC News found three anti-travel videos the government posted on social media in December and ads targeting snowbirds in two magazines that launched in November and December respectively.
‘Missed the boat’?
Some snowbirds who are already at their winter destination question the timing of the campaign blitz.
“I think they missed the boat with that one,” said Lorraine Douglas, 67, of Osoyoos, B.C. On Oct. 24, she and her husband, David, flew to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, where they own a condo. She said the flight was full.
“Most people who come to this area of Baja [Mexico] are coming down in October,” she said.
Kung said that “elements of the campaign were released in November when older adults typically consider travelling down south.” He didn’t specify which elements.
Regarding the campaign’s anti-travel message, Douglas said it doesn’t faze her because COVID-19 safety regulations are strict in her area.
“You have to wear a mask, even if you’re walking on the street,” she said. “We’re outside in the sunshine…. So we actually feel safer here than we would at home.”
The federal government argues Canadians are safer at home, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many parts of the world.
Just over one million Canadian air passengers have entered Canada since March 21, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.
Canadian snowbirds typically head to U.S. Sunbelt states for the winter. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 244,244 Canadians have flown to the United States since October.
You can have fun at home
One of the government’s new video ads targets families pondering travelling abroad over the holidays. It reminds them that the pandemic isn’t over and they can entertain themselves at home with activities such as playing in the snow.
This <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/holiday?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#holiday</a> season, we continue to recommend Canadians avoid non-essential travel outside Canada. <br><br>If you must <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/travel?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#travel</a>, check our latest travel advice to reduce your risk. <a href=”https://t.co/QmVo7OLtyR”>https://t.co/QmVo7OLtyR</a> <a href=”https://t.co/de6AtNpj7u”>pic.twitter.com/de6AtNpj7u</a>
Another large ad posted in Ontario’sFifty-Five Plus magazine warns seniors that along with being more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, they also face potential pitfalls, such as inadequate medical coverage and less strict health measures at their destination compared to Canada.
Snowbird Shelton Papple, 66, of Brantford, Ont., said he didn’t see any of the government’s advertising before Dec. 4. That’s when he and his wife, Karen, flew to Buffalo, N.Y., and shipped their car to the city so they could drive the rest of the way to Florida — despite a closed U.S. land border.
He said that contrary to the ominous ads, he and his wife feel safe in in their neighbourhood in Fort Myers. They have invested in medical insurance that includes COVID-19 coverage and live in a gated community where people are taking COVID-19 precautions, he said.
“Everybody’s wearing a mask, everybody’s social distancing. When we play golf, everybody takes her own cart,” said Papple. “We’re doing no different than what we would do at home … except there’s more to do and it’s outside.”
But there are many Canadians, including snowbirds, who have opted not to travel abroad this winter. They include Roy Graham, 65, of Toronto.
The snowbird and his adult daughter normally spend the winter in Rotonda West, Fla. But this year, Graham believes the stakes are too high for himself and his daughter, who has health issues.
“The uncertainty of what’s happening down south, with COVID running rampant in different states, you just don’t know what to expect.”
Graham viewed the government’s video ad targeting snowbirds at the request of CBC News and said the message it sends reinforces his decision not to travel this winter.
“It touches a nerve,” he said. “You don’t want to be a statistic.”
An Inuk woman from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, says she was mistreated by nurses at a hospital in Ottawa, who refused to give her water and change her diaper.
Leesee Qaqasiq told CBC News she was medevaced to the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital after fracturing her pelvis in mid-October.
Qaqasiq said doctors told her she likely sustained the injury from landing too hard on her wheelchair. The wheelchair was salvaged at the dump and she said that she often has to chase after it when she’s not sitting in it because it has no brakes.
For treatment, Qaqasiq was flown to Ottawa. It’s a common practice for Nunavummiut requiring medical care not available in the territory to be flown to facilities in southern Canada.
“I had to rely on the nurses to change me, to change my diapers, and they were so tired of doing it that they said I can just pee in them,” Qaqasiq said from her home on Baffin Island.
By Nov. 2, toward the end of her two-week stay, Qaqasiq said nurses on the night shift refused to change her diaper and denied her water.
“There was one [nurse] that said I peed too much and denied me water because I was going to pee too much,” she said.
“I wasn’t given water all night long until I called 911 in desperation,” she said. “I thought I was going to die of thirst.”
EMS arrived at her hospital room, where Qaqasiq said they delivered bottles of water.
Ottawa hospital reviewing allegations
The Ottawa Hospital denied CBC’s interview request.
In a written statement, media relations officer Michaela Schreiter said the hospital’s patient relations department is “reviewing the situation to ensure all concerns are addressed.”
“The hospital sincerely apologizes for any negative experiences that do not align with [its] values,” Schreiter said.
Qaqasiq said that throughout her two-week stay, nurses complained regularly about the tasks involved in her care.
“I felt guilty for making them work,” she said.
Qaqasiq’s medical escort — her son — was not allowed to enter the hospital because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“What I’m most afraid of is elders who cannot speak English — how will they be treated?” Qaqasiq said. “They will have no way of knowing what to do, where to go, who to talk to.”
Qaqasiq, who attended residential school as a child, believes she was mistreated because she’s Inuk.
“We’re done. Like, we’re not going to be treated like that anymore, anywhere,” Qaqasiq said.
Canada’s health minister is calling on the Alberta government to reconsider the closure of its injectable opioid agonist treatment program, which Premier Jason Kenney says will end in the spring when the province stops funding it.
The service provides patients with severe opioid use disorder, a recognized condition, with injections of pharmaceutical-grade heroin, known as diacetylmorphine, or hydromorphone.
“We are disappointed by this decision from the Alberta government, and we urge them to reconsider,” a spokesperson for Patty Hajdu said.
The health minister’s call comes one week after a group of patients benefiting from Alberta’s injectable opioid agonist treatment (iOAT) pilot program filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop Alberta’s provincial government from ending it.
If the three Alberta clinics that offer the treatment close, few people east of British Columbia would have access to the program, which is a cornerstone of the federal government’s latest strategy to combat the opioid crisis.
“Many people are struggling with substance use, and in too many communities, the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding this ongoing public health crisis,” the minister’s statement said.
From January 2016 to March of this year 16,364 Canadians died from opioid overdoses according to figures from the federal government. The numbers have shown an increasing trajectory, with 3,799 deaths last year, and over 1,000 in the first three months of 2020.
The move followed decades of research — first in Europe, then in British Columbia. Multiple studies suggested that providing daily access to pharmaceutical grade injectable opioids allowed long-term chronic users to stabilize their lives, find homes and stop engaging in criminal activity many relied on to support their addictions. Most stuck with the program long term, and some were able to stop using injection drugs altogether.
Alberta’s previous NDP government launched the pilot program in late 2017. Premier Jason Kenney is giving the 60 patients currently enrolled one year to transition to other programs that do not involve injecting opioids. He has called the federal government’s approach “facilitating addiction.”
“Handing out free narcotics to addicts is not compassion,” the premier said in response to questions from CBC News in September.
Patients file lawsuit to keep Alberta program operating
Patients enrolled in the program have have filed 11 affidavits in a lawsuit that is attempting to put a human face on the treatment. People who had focused their entire lives on the pursuit of drugs described awakening to a new world free of the stress and danger on the streets.
Among them a once nationally ranked swimmer. Taylor Maxey began taking opioids following an injury in his late teens. He was soon homeless, panhandling on the streets and committing petty crimes.
Maxey’s drug habit was costing $ 900 a day. He watched friends die around him. He attempted suicide. He tried and failed multiple treatment programs.
Today, at the age of 32, he says in an affidavit that he has stable housing, a new network of supportive friends, and hopes of becoming an outreach worker. Instead of hustling for street drugs, he is injected with opioids at the Calgary clinic slated to close in the spring.
Maxey is terrified of what will happen.
“My life would be shorter and much harsher if I returned to the streets and were denied access to iOAT,” he says in an affidavit. “I would be subject to the violence of the streets and the unsafe and precarious world of opioid use. I would be exposed to unsafe supplies of opioids.”
The Alberta government has not filed a statement of defence in the case. The injunction application will be heard in November.
What the research shows
Beyond personal testimonials, iOAT is supported by a range of clinical research that began in Switzerland in the 1990s. on what was then known as heroin assisted treatment, or HAT. A two-year study of 1,000 people across several centres in Switzerland found “substantial improvements for illicit heroin use, health status and crime among HAT patients,” according to a published review of the evidence. It also found a positive cost-benefit ratio because those provided with drugs had fewer medical issues and committed less crime.
A groundbreaking study published in 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded heroin-assisted treatment was safe and effective. Researchers followed 251 people in Vancouver and Montreal over 12 to 15 months. They found 88 per cent of patients receiving heroin stayed with the program, and among them, there was a 67 per cent decrease in criminal behaviour.
Overdoses and seizures were the most common adverse events recorded, though the study noted that since the patients were under close medical supervision, the overdoses were treated and the patients recovered.
As fentanyl and carfentanil have increasingly tainted the illicit drug supply, creating an overdose crisis, the provision of pharmaceutical heroin has increasingly been seen as a potential solution.
In 2019, the federal government formalized regulations, and the Canadian Research Initiative on Substance Misuse added clinical practice guidelines. At the time, Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said expanding the availability of pharmaceutical-grade heroin “will save lives.”
Availability limited as overdose deaths increase
But in spite of expectations the therapy would expand across Canada, it remains limited to a handful of sites in B.C., mostly in Vancouver. If the Alberta program shuts down, the only other places in Canada offering it will be Ottawa’s Managed Opioid Program, which treats a maximum of 25 people in a residential setting, and a newly opened program in Fredericton, which currently serves seven patients.
Rob Boyd, the program director of another Ottawa treatment centre, would like to offer iOAT but says he can’t, because the drugs are not adequately covered by Ontario’s health plan.
“Lots of places want to do it,” he said. “We would fill up right away.”
As overdose deaths increase — there have been more than 1,000 in British Columbia alone this year — Canada’s health minister is urging provinces and regulatory bodies to adopt the treatment.
“Do all you can to help provide people who use drugs a full spectrum of options for accessing medication,” she wrote in a letter to her provincial counterparts and regulatory bodies on Aug. 24.
“We need immediate action from all levels of government and health care practitioners to prevent further deaths from the contaminated illegal drug supply and COVID-19.”
The federal government has said it’s not OK for the Blue Jays to play ball in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ottawa informed the team of the decision on Saturday, citing concerns over the public health risks associated with Major League Baseball’s plan for a 60-game season.
Marco Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, told CBC News Network that the circumstances did not warrant a border-crossing exemption, particularly in light of the amount of cross-border travel needed and the risks that remained. The plan called for the Blue Jays and visiting teams to cross the Canada-U.S. border regularly
“Look, I’m a baseball fan,” Mendicino said. “But we’re not taking decisions as fans. We’re taking decisions on the evidence of science that we receive and protecting the health and safety of Canadians.”
For weeks, senior federal officials have privately expressed concerns about the Blue Jays playing games in COVID-19 hot spots before returning to Toronto while also hosting teams from states U.S. where positive cases are growing fast.
Mendicino said the government is willing to restart plans if the Blue Jays make the playoffs and the risk of the virus spreading has diminished.
WATCH | Marco Mendocino explains Blue Jays decision:
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, discusses the federal government’s decision to deny the Blue Jays approval to play in Toronto. 6:33
The Blue Jays are set to open their season on July 24 at Tampa Bay as Florida continues to set new daily records for COVID-19 cases.
In a statement issued Saturday afternoon, the team thanked municipal, provincial and federal leaders and public health officials “for their detailed consideration and partnership throughout this process.”
“From the onset of discussions with league and government officials, the safety of the broader community — our fans — and the team remained the priority of everyone involved, and with that, the club completely respects the federal government’s decision,” Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays’ president and CEO, said in the statement.
“Though our team will not be playing home games at Rogers Centre this summer, our players will take the field for the 2020 season with the same pride and passion representative of an entire nation. We cannot wait until the day comes that we can play in front of our fans again on Canadian soil.”
WATCH | Ottawa rejects Blue Jays’ request to play in Toronto:
CBC News’ David Cochrane discusses the reasons why the federal government rejected the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to play regular season baseball games in Toronto. 7:04
The club is in the process of finalizing the best home location for the remainder of the 2020 season and will share an update as soon as it is available, the statement said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory issued a statement Saturday afternoon saying he respected the decision.
“This is Toronto’s team and Canada’s team and wherever they play, we are 100 per cent behind them and look forward to an exciting, successful 2020 season,” Tory said.
Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, may have foreshadowed the decision on Friday when he voiced concerns about the frequent travel at a public health briefing.
“The teams — and the Blue Jays included — would be, during the regular season, travelling back and forth across the international border. And that, I think, is an issue,” Njoo said.
The rejection means the Blue Jays will have to find an alternative stadium for home games. The team’s home opener is scheduled for July 29 against the Washington Nationals.
One option is to play in Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., which would eliminate the need for cross-border travel. The Blue Jays were already planning to have one of their minor league teams play there.
But the team’s preference was clearly to play in Toronto. The team revised its plan for home games from an initial proposal that didn’t call for a modified quarantine for players and team officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Njoo said the team initially wanted players to be able to live in their condos or in-season residences and be part of the community. The revised proposal mandated the Blue Jays and visiting teams stay in a hotel connected to Rogers Centre, as the Toronto club is currently doing during training camp.
Provincial approval was in place
The Ontario government gave its approval for the Blue Jays to play in Toronto under those conditions, with the province warning that the agreement would be rescinded if the protocols put in place are broken.
But because the plan would involve multiple crossings of the Canada-U.S. border, the final decision always rested with the federal government. Canada currently requires individuals to quarantine for 14 days after crossing the international border.
Ottawa has given permission for the NHL to restart its season, with 24 teams set to arrive in Toronto and Edmonton later this month. Njoo said Friday the federal government was more comfortable with the setup the NHL is using because all players and staff will be isolated from the general public, and the teams won’t leave Canada until they finish play.
A camera installed by a woman concerned about her mother’s health inside an Ottawa long-term care home overwhelmed by COVID-19 shows several residents wandering into a private room at the height of the outbreak.
The footage shared with The Fifth Estate shows lapses in infection control and provides a glimpse into how Madonna Care Community, one of the hardest-hit nursing homes in Ontario, responded to the crisis.
Madonna Care has one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the capital. Ninety-seven of the home’s 160 residents contracted COVID-19. Nearly half of them died.
Stephanie Kocielski installed a camera in the room of Beverly Peterson, her 73-year old mother, one day before the province banned non-essential visitors to long-term care and retirement homes. Madonna’s management knew about the camera.
“It’s horrible. Horrible,” said Kocielski, who is angry at what she saw. “My mom has dementia, and she can’t speak for herself and she has a hearing problem.… I want to be her voice.”
A COVID-19 outbreak was declared at Madonna Care on April 6.
The camera in Kocielski’s mother’s room sits on top of a corner shelf and flickers to life when there is movement in the room.
Video reviewed by The Fifth Estate from April 23 shows four residents wandering into Peterson’s private room that afternoon, before she tested positive for COVID-19. In most of the cases, Peterson was not in the room.
WATCH | Residents wander into another resident’s room at Madonna Care Community:
On the afternoon of April 23, four residents enter Beverly Peterson’s room. 0:21
At the time, Madonna Care had more than 30 cases of COVID-19 among residents. Three people had died and four staff members had tested positive.
At 2:21 p.m. on April 23, an elderly man walks into Peterson’s room, drawn to the plush blanket tucked into her bed. It has a picture of a horse on it. The man pulls the blanket off, climbs into the bed and snuggles into it. Then he coughs on the blanket before falling asleep. Fifteen minutes later, staff find the man, rouse him and take him out of the room.
Two hours later, a woman walks in and rearranges the knick-knacks on Peterson’s nightstand then leaves. Five minutes after that, another female resident, using a walker, ambles across the room to stare out the window.
Shortly before 6 p.m., another man wanders in and sits down on the bed for several minutes. Peterson doesn’t know he’s there because her back is turned to him.
“There was a man in my mom’s bed coughing on her pillows and blankets and her bedding didn’t get changed,” said Kocieslki, who watched it all unfold from her cellphone. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s going to get sick for sure.’ ”
On April 26, three days after residents wandered into her room, Peterson tested positive for COVID-19.
In an email to The Fifth Estate, Sienna Living, the company that owns Madonna Care, said that “as soon as any resident displays any kind of respiratory flu-like symptoms, they are placed in isolation and are closely monitored by our team as required by our infection and control protocols.”
Sienna Living’s response did not specifically address the issue of wandering residents. The corporation also declined a request for an interview.
The company, which owns 70 seniors homes in Canada, said it has followed all public health directives with regards to testing.
“The safety of our residents and team members is our No. 1 prioirty. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked closely with public health authorities and the government to implement all necessary precautions, protocols and directives to protect our team members and residents,” the company statement read.
Sienna also said that bed linens are changed, with baths at least once per week, and anything “visibly soiled is changed regardless of frequency.”
But that is not what Kocielski’s recordings appear to show.
Additional footage reviewed by The Fifth Estate shows several residents continuing to wander into Peterson’s room and sleep on her bed while she was still positive for the coronavirus.
WATCH | Residents continue to wander into the room of a woman who has tested postive for the coronavirus:
After Beverly Peterson tests positive for COVID-19, residents at Madonna Care Community continue to wander into her room. 0:10
This happened despite a memorandum issued by the Ministry of Long-Term Care in early March that stated residents with respiratory illness or fever should be isolated.
Kocielski also said she called Madonna Care and demanded the sheets be changed when she first saw the man napping on her mother’s bed. She said the footage appears to show that the horse blanket and pink pillow case were not stripped until three weeks later, on May 12.
Kocielski said staff only changed her mother’s sheets twice in more than 90 days.
“We noticed right from the beginning they seem to be short-staffed. The PSWs and nurses seemed to be run ragged,” said Kocielski. She noticed that workers spent very little time in the room, and that there were times when no one checked on her mother overnight.
On April 26, paramedics tested all residents and staff of the home. The surveillance testing revealed the virus was rapidly spreading. Sixty-one residents were infected, along with 27 employees. The number of staff infections was seven times higher than the previous week. By the end of the month, the death toll at Madonna Care had climbed to 15.
Kocielski has recorded hundreds of hours of video over more than three months. The Fifth Estate has seen samples from several weeks in March, April, May and June.
Other footage seen by CBC shows instances of staff wearing only a surgical mask when standing close to her mother. In one case, a worker is seen touching her mother without gloves. Care staff are only seen wearing full PPE, (masks, shields, gloves and gowns) after Peterson tests positive.
Kocieslki’s mother has recovered from her illness, but Kocieslki said she’s not confident Madonna Care will be able to handle the next wave of the pandemic on its own.
“I want people to beware. I want people to help make change. I think the government needs to take over the long-term care homes,” she said. “What went wrong in all these homes that were for-profit?”
Hospital SWAT team sent
On April 29, the Champlain Health Region Incident Command sent in a COVID-19 SWAT team to Madonna Care Community and other hard-hit seniors home.
More than 70 hospital workers from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Royal Mental Health Institute sprang into action. The team included doctors, nurses, health-care aids, cleaners, social workers, pharmacy technicians, occupational health officers, respiratory therapists and infection control specialists.
In an email, CHEO spokesperson Paddy Moore said that hospital workers brought in their own PPE such as N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns and gloves “to ensure adequate supplies” and worked with Madonna’s management to stabilize the home’s own PPE supply.
Even with the arrival of the health SWAT teams, the number of infections continued to grow. In May, another 69 people got sick. Two PSWs died, and hospital workers got infected, too
Eight employees deployed by CHEO and the Royal tested positive, but did not require hospitalization.
Concerns about understaffing
The hospitals “took too long to come in there. They could have provided a lot more support for the home,” said Betty Yakimenko, who meets regularly with management as a member of Madonna Care’s family council.
“I don’t think they moved in fast enough.”
Yakimenko said that Ontario Premier Doug Ford mentioned sending in SWAT teams two weeks before hospital workers arrived.
Pre-pandemic, the nursing home assigned three personal support workers and one licensed practical nurse to care for 36 residents on each ward, Yakimenko said.
The staff-to-resident ratio was untenable once visitors were barred from long-term care centres, Yakimenko said. Many families had assisted residents with feeding, bathing and tidying up rooms.
On top of losing the help of family members, Yakimenko said Madonna Care lost 60 per cent of its staff in mid-March after management ordered personal support workers to work at only one facility to limit community spread of the coronavirus. She wonders if health authorities knew about the staffing shortages.
“It’s hard to put total blame on staff when they’re running around trying to do what they can. At that point, more could have and should have been done to get more staff in there,” said Yakimenko.
61% of residents infected
The COVID-19 outbreak at Madonna Care Community, which began in early April, lasted 64 days.
According to Ottawa Public Health, in that period, a total of 157 residents and staff were infected. Forty-nine people died, including two personal support workers.
Dozens of families in Ontario have joined a class-action lawsuit against Sienna Living and Revera, another company that owns and manages seniors’ homes, alleging negligence. The lawsuit has yet to be certified.
Jane Meadus, a lawyer specializing in elder health, said Sienna Living should have hired more staff to keep residents from wandering after the outbreak was declared.
“These companies are making millions of dollars…. The home has an obligation to ensure that the residents are socially isolating and with dementia they should be constantly monitoring them,” said Meadus.
“It happens all the time because there isn’t enough staff to monitor residents. With the pandemic it’s now worse. What they need is eyes on the residents.”
The outbreak at Madonna Care ended on June 8. Ontario is relaxing pandemic rules, and long-term care facilities that are virus-free can start accepting new residents.