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How U.S. media lost the trust of the public

A global pandemic, historic anti-racism protests and a turbulent U.S. presidential election had Americans glued to their screens in 2020 like never before. Cable news ratings soared, online news subscriptions increased and the amount of time we all spent online broke records.

But as people consumed more news, they also began to trust the media less, surveys showed. According to a recent Gallup survey, the percentage of Americans with no trust in the mass media hit a record high in 2020: only nine per cent of respondents said they trust the mass media “a great deal” and a full 60 per cent said they have little to “no trust at all” in it.

The American media landscape has become increasingly polarized over the last few decades. 

A Pew survey suggests 95 per cent of MSNBC’s audience are now Democrats while 93 per cent of the Fox News audience are Republicans. A similar trend is unfolding online. 

“There’s a constant selection process that’s going on, that Silicon Valley is encouraging and accelerating,” said U.S. journalist and author Matt Taibbi in the new CBC documentary Big News. “If you read the Daily Caller, you are not going to read the New York Times and vice versa.” 

Meanwhile, the media’s traditional sources of revenue have been uprooted. More than 16,000 news jobs were cut in the U.S. last year alone, the highest on record. 

“Profitability is disappearing. Losses are growing. And budgets are tighter and tighter,” said conservative commentator and author Andrew Sullivan. “And the truth is … polarization is profitable.” 

WATCH | Matt Taibbi and other media critics on the loss of trust in media:

Journalist Matt Taibbi and others reflect on the loss of trust in the U.S. news media and the parallel rise in ratings. 1:47

Online metrics also show that the best way to get people to engage and spread content is to inflame their emotions, said Taibbi, who wrote the book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another

CBC’s Big News, which was released March 26 on CBC Gem, examines some of these issues in depth by interviewing media insiders and critics who dig into the ratings wars, public mistrust, the Trump effect, the politicization of the anti-racism protests and the pandemic, and the weaponization of social media. Coming off a record-breaking news year, the documentary asks, can the U.S. media be saved from itself?

Watch some highlights below:

Capitol Hill riots expose trust crisis in the U.S. 

Every year, the public affairs company Edelman releases a trust barometer that measures perceived trust in the information we consume and its sources. This year’s report paints a particularly bleak picture.

“This is the era of information bankruptcy,” said CEO Richard Edelman in a statement. “We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicized and biased. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness.”

“Fifty-seven percent of Americans find the political and ideological polarization so extreme that they believe the U.S. is in the midst of a cold civil war.”

Some of the experts interviewed for the documentary said that polarization and the increasing alienation from mainstream media among parts of the American population contributed to the convictions that drove the deadly Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill.  

“Jan. 6 was the logical result of the profound disparity between the elites and a lot of people who had been profoundly misinformed,” Sullivan told the CBC.

WATCH | MSNBC host Ali Velshi and others on media polarization and the Capitol riot:

MSNBC host Ali Velshi and others analyze how the U.S. media landscape contributed to the events at the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021. 2:26

How cable news became polarized in the U.S.

Until the 1990s, American broadcast news was focused on gaining the largest possible audience with the least objectionable content, Taibbi says in the documentary. 

“It was oblivious in all sorts of ways to poverty, to race, to issues of sexual orientation, to America’s role in the world, but it knit together a common understanding. And that common understanding drove politics,” Lawrence Lessig, lawyer and author of They Don’t Represent Us, told CBC.

By the early 2000s, as competition increased and regulations softened, that profit model began to change and media outlets began targeting specific demographics.

WATCH | How did media become so polarized? Experts offer their take:

Lawrence Lessig, Sue Gardner and others explain how and why American broadcast news became increasingly polarized. 7:50

Journalists increasingly seen as ‘out of touch’

According to a 2019 Pew survey, 73 percent of Republicans say news media don’t understand people like them, and 40 percent of Democrats feel the same way.

Local news has been particularly hard-hit by recent job cuts, which means journalists are now increasingly congregated in big urban cities, such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles.  

“Those cities are expensive, and so you have to be wealthy to be a journalist, which didn’t used to be true,” said Sue Gardner, former director of the Wikimedia Foundation and CBC.ca. 

“People don’t know journalists anymore unless they themselves are also part of the wealthy elites, so all of that creates more distance.”

Former Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson grew up and worked in the Midwest for decades before becoming a Fox News host in the early 2000s. “There are a lot of people who feel like their voice isn’t being heard,” she told CBC.

WATCH | How journalists lost touch with their audiences:

Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and others dig into the divide between journalists and their audiences. 1:39

Global pandemic another test of media credibility

The coronavirus pandemic was another event that polarized Americans, and the media played a part in that, those who spoke with CBC for the Big News documentary said.

One example, says New York Times health reporter Apoorva Mandavill, was the shifting and increasingly politicized coverage of the mask debate.

“I think that as journalists, we were disoriented at the beginning, and we probably didn’t ask quite as many tough questions, like, ‘Why wouldn’t masks work?” Mandavilli said.  

“It really did feed into this idea that we cannot trust anybody.”

According to a University of Michigan analysis, COVID-19 stories in American newspapers and network news were highly politicized and polarized.

“It is likely that media coverage is contributing to the polarization of public attitudes [around COVID-19],” the study concluded.

WATCH | Why even coverage of the pandemic became polarized:

How the American news media’s coverage of the COVID-19 crisis put people’s faith in media and experts to the test. 5:14

Watch the full documentaryon CBC Gem

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CBC | World News

Public Health Agency was unprepared for the pandemic and ‘underestimated’ the danger, auditor general says

Despite nearly two decades of warnings, planning and government spending, the Public Health Agency of Canada was not ready for the global pandemic and did not appreciate the threat it posed in its early stages, Canada’s auditor general says.

In a hard-hitting review released today, Auditor General Karen Hogan took the country’s primary pandemic response agency to task for failures in early warning, surveillance, risk assessments, data-sharing with the provinces and follow-up on Canadian travellers who were ordered into quarantine.

“The agency was not adequately prepared to respond to the pandemic, and it underestimated the potential impact of the virus at the onset of the pandemic,” said the AG’s review — one of three that looked at the Liberal government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis, which as of Thursday had killed 22,780 Canadians and brought the country’s economy to its knees.

The auditor also reviewed federal COVID emergency benefit programs such as the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and the Canada emergency wage subsidy (CEWS) to determine whether the benefits reached people in need and whether the government imposed enough controls to limit abuse.

Her most critical comments, however, were reserved for the topic of pandemic preparedness. Hogan said PHAC, which was established to ensure the country was ready for a major outbreak, “was not as well prepared as it could have been” because major contingency plans and issues related to surveillance had not been resolved or dealt with — even though some of them had been pointed out by previous auditors.

WATCH | PHAC caught unprepared, AG says:

Karen Hogan released a series of audits on how the early months of the battle against COVID-19 were handled. 1:38

“I am discouraged that the Public Health Agency of Canada did not address long-standing issues, some of which were raised repeatedly for more than two decades,” Hogan said.

“These issues negatively affected the sharing of health surveillance data between the Agency and the provinces and territories.”

‘Much more work to do’

While the agency took steps to address some of these problems during the pandemic, she said, “it has much more work to do on its data sharing agreements and information technology infrastructure to better support national disease surveillance in the future.”

The report found that the agency’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), a surveillance system that scours the internet for reports of infectious disease outbreaks in other countries, did not issue an alert to provide an early warning when COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China.

A security person moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a World Health Organization team arrived for a field visit in Wuhan, China on Feb. 3. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

The network, which is part of PHAC, did email a daily report to domestic subscribers, including the provinces, with links to related news articles.

Officials at the public health agency defended the low-key approach by saying that at the end of December 2019, other international sources had already shared news of the virus, making it unnecessary to issue an alert.

The auditor also criticized the risk assessments the agency put together after COVID-19 began spreading around the globe — reports which key leaders used to make decisions on public health measures such as closing the border. She said those assessments were oblivious to the unfolding global crisis.

Failed to appreciate threat

“The agency assessed that COVID‐19 would have a minimal impact if an outbreak were to occur in Canada,” said the audit.

In fact, right up to the point when the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic — on March 11, 2020 — those risk assessments continued to rate the threat to the country as “low.”

It wasn’t until the day after — in response to escalating case counts in Canada and rising concerns among provincial governments — that Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam ordered an upgrade to the risk rating, the review said.

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo defended PHAC’s response to the pandemic, saying the global crisis was ‘unprecedented.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


Health Minister Patty Hajdu defended the decisions during question period on Thursday, pointing to a separate internal evaluation by her department which said the changes made to GPHIN did not impact the federal government’s response to the crisis.

Nevertheless, she accepted the auditor general’s criticism.

“We have reviewed the auditor general’s report, we agree that this country, along with all countries, will need to review our response to the pandemic and make investments in public health, as we have been doing since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Hajdu, who also pledged to hire more public health staff and insisted that gaps are being plugged with $ 690 million in new funds.

Speaking prior to the release of the report, Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer, said the audit offers a snapshot of a particular moment in the pandemic’s trajectory and the agency has worked hard to address the problems.

“Certainly, this pandemic is unprecedented,” said Njoo. “We haven’t had a pandemic like this … in at least over 100 years.”

A lot of countries around the world are learning lessons, he said, and “I think we’re all learning from each other …”

Drawing a blank on the border

The audit also found out that PHAC and the Canada Border Services Agency did not know whether two-thirds of incoming travellers followed quarantine orders.

“The agency referred few of the travellers for in‐person follow‐up to verify compliance with orders,” said the review.

Part of that problem could be due to the limits of public health information.

“Of the individuals considered to be at risk of non‐compliance, the agency referred only 40 per cent to law enforcement and did not know whether law enforcement actually contacted them,” said the audit.

The auditor said PHAC also fell down on data sharing. The public health agency did have an agreement with the provinces and territories to share data, but it was not fully implemented when the pandemic hit.

The auditor general also said the federal government didn’t do enough to ensure the “integrity” of the Canada emergency wage subsidy program (CEWS).

‘Integrity’ of CEWS program ‘at risk’

CEWS was launched in March 2020 to subsidize up to 75 per cent of wages for workers who were kept on their employers’ payrolls.

To get the program out the door as quickly as possible, the CRA was only able to conduct limited tests before approving payments, said the audit.

“Without effective controls for validating payments, the integrity of the program is at risk and ineligible employers might receive the subsidy,” the audit concluded.

It also said the agency did not have up‑to‑date earnings and tax data for assessing applicants. For example, 28 per of applicants did not file a GST/HST return for the 2019 calendar year.

“We noted that the subsidy was paid to applicants despite their history of penalties for failure to remit and other advance indicators of potential insolvency,” said the audit. “Indeed, the agency held no legislative authority to deny access to the subsidy on the basis of an employer’s history of non‑compliance with tax obligations.”

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CBC | Health News

Canadian star Ryan Reynolds reveals he’s ‘Bruce’ from viral Ottawa Public Health tweet

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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CBC | Health News

British police officer’s arrest for missing woman Sarah Everard’s death stuns public, politicians

Britain’s most senior police officer has sought to reassure women it is safe to walk the streets of London at night after one of her officers was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering a 33-year-old woman.

Sarah Everard’s disappearance and the announcement that human remains had been found prompted women to flood social media with posts about the steps they take to keep safe when out alone at night, including clutching keys to use as a weapon and wearing running shoes in case they need to escape.

Others detailed a catalogue of incidents of harassment by men in public over the decades since they were schoolgirls.
“These are so powerful because each and every woman can relate,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said. “Every woman should feel safe to walk on our streets without fear of harassment or violence.”

Everard was last seen at 9:30 p.m. on March 3 as she walked home from a friend’s house in south London. Her image, smiling at the camera or caught on CCTV that evening, has been splashed across British newspapers all week.

‘Women aren’t safe on our streets’

An officer, a man in his 40s whose job it was to guard diplomatic buildings, has been arrested on suspicion of murder, kidnap and indecent exposure, while a woman in her 30s was also detained on suspicion of assisting an offender.

“The disappearance of Sarah and the absolute tragedy around that has really touched a nerve with a lot of women,” said Anna Birley, 31, one of the organizers of a planned Reclaim These Streets vigil to honour Everard and demand change.

“We feel really angry that it’s an expectation put on women that we need to change our behaviour to stay safe. The problem isn’t women, the problem is that women aren’t safe on our streets,” said Birley.

A forensic officer leaves a house in Deal, U.K., in connection with the Everard investigation on Wednesday. (Steve Parsons/PA/The Associated Press)

The London police force has said the officer, who works for the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, had not been on duty the night Everard disappeared. Multiple reports from British news outlets indicate his most recent shift before that was at the U.S. embassy.

Cressida Dick, the head of London’s police force, said she and her colleagues were “utterly appalled” at news a serving officer had been arrested, saying it had sent waves of “shock and anger” through the public and the police.

“I know Londoners will want to know that it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets,” she said.

“But I completely understand that despite this, women in London and the wider public, particularly those in the area where Sarah went missing, will be worried and may well be feeling scared.”

Reaction from a Labour MP:

Police continued to question the officer on Thursday. A woman in her 30s, who media reported was the officer’s wife, was also detained on suspicion of assisting an offender, but has since been released on bail.

England’s police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, said it had launched an investigation into the London police force’s handling of the case.

The officer who was arrested was reported to police on Feb. 28 over allegations of indecent exposure in a south London fast food restaurant, several days before Everard disappeared.

Although the remains have not yet been formally identified, Everard’s family released a statement, saying their “beautiful daughter Sarah was taken from us and we are appealing for any information that will help to solve this terrible crime.”

“Sarah was bright and beautiful — a wonderful daughter and sister. She was kind and thoughtful, caring and dependable,” the family said.

Vigil planned for Saturday

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday he was shocked and deeply saddened by the developments.

“The message that needs to be sent is that male violence is something that has to be tackled and challenged and the justice system and society has to wake up to that,” said Jess Phillips, the opposition Labour Party’s spokesperson on domestic violence.

“At the moment we just simply don’t take it seriously as we take other crimes.”

Phillips on Thursday read out in the chamber of the House of Commons the names of 118 women killed in the United Kingdom last year in cases in which a man has been charged or convicted. It took her more than four minutes to read the list.

The hashtags #saraheverard and #TooManyMen trended online as women relayed their experiences, prompting men to ask what they should do differently, such as not walking closely behind a woman on her own.

Some pointed out online the concerning drop in prosecutions of sexual assault, though it’s not clear if it is specifically applicable to the Everard case.

Only 1.5 per cent of 57,516 rape cases recorded in England and Wales led to a charge in the year up to September 2020, official data showed last month, with 42 per cent of cases failing due to evidential difficulties, such as victims not supporting further action.

Rape prosecutions hit a record low of 2,102 in 2019-2020, down about 30 per cent year on year, while convictions fell by 25 per cent to 1,439, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Amid warnings the system is failing survivors, the CPS has set out a five-year blueprint to ensure sex offenders are brought to justice, including improving communications with victims and working with police to strengthen cases.

The Reclaim The Streets vigil is set to be held Saturday night at Clapham Common, near the place where Everard was
last seen.

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CBC | World News

COVID-19 vaccine deliveries back on track following weeks of delay, says Public Health Agency

Deliveries of COVID-19 vaccine doses from two approved vaccine makers — Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — are back on track following weeks of reduced shipments, officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada said today.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading Canada’s vaccine logistics, said 403,650 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Canada this week. That’s the largest single delivery since shipments began in December.

Fortin said that both companies are on track to meet their targets by delivering a total of six million doses — four million from Pfizer and two million from Moderna — by the end of March.

And an updated delivery timeline released by PHAC says Canada should receive millions more doses than originally anticipated between now and September.

“We’re now coming out of this period of limited supplies. It’s an abundance of supplies for spring and summer, where we can have a significant scaling-up of immunization plans in provinces,” Fortin said.

Pressure on government

The federal government has come under intense pressure from opposition politicians and other critics in recent weeks as the country’s vaccine rollout slowed. Pfizer began reducing shipments in January as it retooled its plant in Puurs, Belgium, so that it could expand its manufacturing capacity. Moderna also has cut its shipments in recent weeks.

The delays have caused Canada to fall behind dozens of other countries in measurements of doses administered by population, according to a global vaccine tracking database maintained by University of Oxford researchers.

As of last Saturday, only 2.7 per cent of Canadians had received one shot of a vaccine and less than one per cent had received both doses.

WATCH | Fortin says increased COVID-19 vaccine supply expected in spring

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin provides details on the increased supply of COVID-19 vaccines expected to arrive in Canada this spring. 1:48

Pfizer has locked in a delivery schedule for the next six weeks to meet the end-of-March deadline. The company plans to ship 475,000 doses next week and then 444,600 per week next month, according to the federal government’s vaccine distribution tracker.

Moderna, which has delivered 500,000 doses so far, will deliver a reduced shipment of 168,000 doses next week. Negotiations are still underway with Moderna on specific delivery dates for the remaining 1.3 million doses it’s committed to delivering by the end of March, but they are expected to arrive in two shipments, Fortin said.

The territories — which already have administered vaccines to 32.9 per cent of their adult populations — will have enough doses from Moderna’s next two deliveries to vaccinate 75 per cent of adults by the end of March, Fortin said. 

Accelerated rollout schedule

The updated timeline provided by PHAC shows millions more doses arriving between now and September than previous projections anticipated.

It projects that Canada should have enough doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to fully vaccinate 14.5 million people by the end of June, and 42 million by the end of September. If the companies follow through with deliveries on schedule, that means Canada would have more than enough doses to fully vaccinate the country’s entire population by September.

Part of that increase is due to Health Canada acknowledging that each vial of the Pfizer vaccine carries six doses, not five. That change means more shots can be squeezed out of each vial — and the company can ship fewer vials and still meet its contractual obligations to send a certain number of doses to its customers.

But the updated number also reflects recent deals Ottawa negotiated with Pfizer and Moderna to accelerate deliveries. 

Arianne Reza, assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada, said today that negotiations led the companies to commit to moving up the delivery of 5.1 million doses — scheduled originally to arrive in the third and fourth quarters of this year — to the second quarter between April and June.

The timeline shows that Canada could have enough doses to vaccinate even more people — 24.5 million — by the end of June. But that calculation is based on an optimistic scenario where three other vaccines currently under review — from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax — are approved by Health Canada and delivered on time.

Vaccine effectiveness in LTC

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said preliminary data from provincial and territorial health authorities show that vaccinations in long-term care homes are starting to have a positive effect at preventing disease. He cautioned, however, that more robust data is needed as the vaccine rollout ramps up.

“The early indications are it’s starting to have an impact. The rates of infection and … subsequently the hospitalizations and deaths as a result of COVID-19 exposure and having the disease are starting to go down,” said Njoo.

He also said that federal and provincial health experts are looking at evidence that one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 might be almost as effective as two. Njoo said data presented by two Canadian doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine this week are compelling.

Two Canadian doctors who analyzed vaccine efficacy data from the U.S. wrote in the New England Medical Journal this week that one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may be almost as good as giving two. (Andrew Vaughan-Pool/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Danuta Skowronski from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and Dr. Gaston De Serres from the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec say data in the U.S. suggest the Pfizer vaccine was 92 per cent effective against COVID-19 two weeks after just one dose.

Original data suggested one dose gave about 52 per cent protection and two doses gave 94.5 per cent protection — but the doctors say those estimates failed to allow two weeks for vaccine recipients’ immune systems to respond.

The doctors suggest that with vaccine doses in scarce supply, more of the most vulnerable could be protected by delaying second doses for now.

Njoo said the doctors recently presented their evidence to a committee of federal and provincial public health officers. He added that PHAC officials are actively discussing the issue with the provinces and territories and with members of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which makes recommendations on how vaccinations should be prioritized.

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CBC | Health News

Most at risk, first in line: Public health experts say racialized Canadians should be prioritized for vaccines

Two public health experts in Toronto say governments must prioritize vaccinating Black Canadians and other people of colour against COVID-19 because the data shows they are most at risk of contracting the virus.

Akwatu Khenti and Ananya Tina Banerjee told CBC Radio’s The House that failing to vaccinate those communities will not only put them at greater risk of getting COVID-19, but also increases the chance that the virus will spread more widely.

“The reason that Black people have a higher rate of positivity, or higher hospitalization rates, is actually because of social inequities, systemic racism and neighborhood vulnerabilities,” said Khenti, who teaches at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and chairs the city’s Black Scientists Task Force on Vaccine Equity.

“If we use some type of vulnerability index we would arrive at the same conclusion, the most vulnerable should be first in line. Right now, the most vulnerable are racialized health professionals, racialized communities.”

Banerjee founded the South Asian Health Research Hub, and like Khenti, is on the faculty at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She said the data shows racialized communities are not only hardest hit by the virus, but many people in those communities work in manufacturing, distribution, the service industry and travel to their jobs using public transportation.

“And so given this information, it has to be prioritized that … the hardest hit neighbourhoods have to get vaccinated first or community transmission is just going to escalate,” she told The House.

CBC News: The House10:31Building an equitable vaccine rollout

Akwatu Khenti, chair of Toronto’s Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, and Ananya Tina Banerjee, founder of the South Asian Health Research Hub, share what’s needed to create an inoculation campaign that provides equal access to shots. 10:31

Advisory committee looking at next priority groups

CBC News put those concerns to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on Friday.

Tam noted that the goal of prioritizing specific groups or locations, such as congregate settings, is to reduce serious illness. But, she added, different provinces would use their own evidence to inform their rollout plans.

She said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) created last year is examining the next set of priority populations for vaccines as deliveries begin to ramp up in the weeks ahead.

“For example, if you are in Toronto or if you’re in Ontario, they’ve already got data in relationship to where those higher risk populations are and that they be considered as part of the rollout for the prioritization of vaccines.”

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Friday that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is looking at who should be next in line for a vaccine. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ontario’s Ministry of Health told CBC News that the province is already collecting some demographic information, including age and sex, from people receiving vaccinations on a voluntary basis; it is also exploring how additional data might be used “to support the efficient, equitable and effective vaccine rollout for communities that are at-risk and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

The statement goes on to say that the ministry recognizes Black and racialized communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and is working with local health authorities to establish guidelines for delivering the shots.

“The ministry works with its health system partners to ensure the guidance and information provided is clearly understood by all partners regarding the prioritization of populations for COVID-19 vaccines.

Racialized populations at risk elsewhere

The federal government already identified the need to prioritize Indigenous communities for vaccination. But this country isn’t alone in grappling with how to protect the most vulnerable sectors of the population from COVID-19 amid shortages of vaccine doses.

In the United States, Black and Hispanic Americans are bearing the brunt of infections, hospitalizations and death linked to the coronavirus. Experts there, and in Canada, are warning that the lack of race-based data on vaccinations runs the risk of leaving those same communities behind.

Khenti said part of the effort needed now is to overcome the reluctance of some people in racialized communities to get the vaccine by working with community partners and other local agencies.

“You have to work through trusted partners because the issue isn’t just one of information, it’s one of trust. And to date, many institutions haven’t made the effort to earn that trust,” he said. “Systemic racism has been ignored. It hasn’t been given the priority that it deserves, especially with respect to anti-Black racism, which is the issue facing my task force.”

Community outreach critical

That kind of community outreach is being credited with reducing coronavirus infections in South Asian communities in BC’s lower mainland

The province, like most others, doesn’t systematically track race-based COVID-19 data. But Banerjee told The House it’s possible to replicate anywhere.

“I mean, think about it. We need to bring the vaccine to the people and meet them where they’re at right now … We need to be thinking about that. We can’t just rely on these large health care systems, malls and chain pharmacies to have these vaccination programs,” she said.

Ananya Tina Banerjee, a faculty member at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said vaccination programs must work at the community level and meet populations where they are. (Yanjun Li/CBC News)

” And so we need to be, I think, at these access points of trust, as we call it. Just this past weekend in the U.K., there were hundreds of people actually vaccinated at a pop up clinic set up by the East London mosque to encourage Muslims to be inoculated and given their widespread concerns about the vaccination. And I think that is an incredible model that is community driven, that can be rolled out to temples, churches, gurdwaras, mosques in Ontario, especially if you want to target those racialized communities.”

But both Khenti and Banerjee warned that time is short. New, more contagious variants of the virus are beginning to spread, increasing the need to act now to give priority to Black Canadians and others who are already at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

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CBC | Health News

Canada hesitates to update public health guidelines on risk from coronavirus variants

The rapid spread of more contagious coronavirus variants across Canada has led some hard-hit regions to question whether national public health guidelines go far enough to protect Canadians — and they’re sounding the alarm over the dangers of just minutes of exposure.

Despite acknowledging the emergence of variants threaten to “rapidly accelerate” the spread of COVID-19, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has not made any updates to its guidance for the public. 

Canadians continue to be told to stay at home as much as possible and follow basic public health guidelines such as mask-wearing, physical distancing and handwashing — but at a local level, regions facing rising variant cases are going even further.

In York Region, just north of Toronto, public health officials made headlines this week after releasing startling new information on individuals infected with the variant first identified in the U.K. that seemed to call into question federal guidelines. 

“Those cases were quite careful in many instances but seem to have the variant of concern nevertheless,” Medical Officer of Health for York Region Dr. Karim Kurji said in a statement to CBC News. 

“Some of these people who caught it were just doing essential visits and not for very much time, just a minute or two.” 

WATCH | What do variants change about the approach to COVID-19?

An infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist answer questions about COVID-19 variants including if people need to adapt precautions and how they affect testing. 5:55

York Region has seen a dramatic rise in the number of confirmed cases of the variant, also known as B117, with at least 39 to date.

It’s also stepped up efforts to control the spread of variants by opening isolation centres and lowering its thresholds for risk.

Kurji said York Region has had a more “conservative” definition of a close contact throughout the pandemic than other areas, describing it as just 10 minutes of interaction within two metres as opposed to the federal government’s 15-minute rule. 

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, these guidelines were not very clear,” he said. “So we established this rule and we have stuck with that.”

Public Health Ontario (PHO), an arm’s-length provincial government agency, also recently told health units across the province they should reduce their thresholds for classifying all COVID-19 exposures because of the emergence of variants. 

If a person infected with COVID-19 and a contact are both wearing masks, but the contact isn’t wearing eye protection, PHO said they should be considered “high-risk” if they were within two metres for at least 15 minutes. 

If neither of them is wearing a mask or eye protection — PHO said any amount of exposure time is risky, aside from briefly passing by each other. 

And if the contact isn’t wearing a mask but the infected case is, even if it’s a high quality medical mask, the risk of exposure is large no matter what. 

It’s a far cry from the federal government regulations that still recommend non-medical masks and define exposures in the COVID Alert app as 15 minutes within two metres. And the competing advice from different public health officials no doubt leaves Canadians confused as to what they should be doing to protect themselves.  

What should we do differently?

Experts say much like local public health units that are reassessing guidelines in light of the variants, Canadians should be rethinking risk based on the situation in their communities. 

“I think in this case the local health units have it right in the sense that you want to have an abundance of caution,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

“We know that we have a more transmissible variant that’s circulating, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that means. We continue to hear that the precautions that have worked with the regular version of [the coronavirus] still work — but we may need to do them better.” 

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam puts on a mask at a news conference on Nov. 6, 2020. The Public Health Agency of Canada has resisted recommending the use of medical masks to lower risk of exposure, despite calls from experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci to up our mask game whenever possible. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Tuite said the 15-minute exposure time and two-metre distance rules are “arbitrary,” and erring on the side of caution makes sense even in areas without widespread variants. 

“The new variants I think provide us with a reason to reevaluate those rules and I think that’s something that hasn’t necessarily been well communicated to the public,” she said. 

“There’s nothing magical about that distance that was based on science, that’s based on sort of what we know about how airborne pathogens are spread. But I think the science has evolved, or at least our thinking has evolved.” 

PHAC was slow to update its guidance on the spread of the coronavirus through the air. It only mentioned the risk of transmission from aerosols — or microscopic airborne particles — for the first time in November

The federal agency has also resisted recommending the use of medical masks to lower risk of exposure, despite calls from experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci to up our mask game whenever possible. 

Tuite said it’s “unhelpful” for PHAC to tell Canadians who may not be closely following the science that variants are more transmissible than previous strains, but also not instruct them to do anything differently. 

“When you look at Canada’s response as a whole, clearly, there are many, many different things that we should be doing better,” said Dr. Leyla Asadi, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. 

“We should be having better public health restrictions in place, we should be having better public health messaging, we should be using more rapid tests, we should have more paid sick leave and wraparound services — all of those things.” 

A laboratory technologist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control holds a genome cartridge while performing genomic sequencing of the the SARS-CoV-2 virus. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Asadi said the reason Canada is doing so “poorly” in these areas, is simply because we’re not being “aggressive enough” in our response. 

“I think people fundamentally would appreciate having strong leadership from federal public health authorities,” she said. 

“I don’t think the science has necessarily changed. We don’t need new science I don’t think, I think we know these things already. We just need to make sure that it’s not just the people on Twitter and the health authorities that know it.”

Federal response

Federal health authorities said during a technical briefing Tuesday there were no plans to update current public health guidelines due to variants, but that could change as more information becomes available.

“The state of the science and our understanding of these variants is continuously growing,” said Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, head of the federal National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.  

“As data becomes available, public health decision-makers review the data and will re-evaluate any public health decisions based on data.”

WATCH | Alberta aims to reduce risk of new variant spread by adjusting quarantine rules:

By introducing the possibility of quarantine periods of up to 24 days for people who’ve been exposed to someone infected by COVID-19, the province of Alberta expects to reduce the risk posed by the arrival of coronavirus variants, says respirologist Dr. Samir Gupta. 2:04

Asadi said the average Canadian who may still be wearing a cloth mask and thinking two metres of distance is sufficient, may not be getting the information they need to avoid risk of exposure. 

“It makes me sad when I feel like the necessary information isn’t getting to precisely the people that it needs to get to,” she said. 

Risk guidelines ‘patchy’ across Canada

Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said there has been enough scientific evidence released in recent months to warrant updating public health guidance on the risk of exposure, even before the emergence of variants. 

A recent report from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention looked at COVID-19 transmission in the National Football League last fall, and found infections were occurring in exposures of less than 15 minutes

“So that’s before the variants are an issue. So it’s not a variant thing, it’s a COVID thing,” he said. “Maybe what’s motivating people to make these changes is the variant has freaked them out a little bit.” 

A shopper wears a mask as he passes a government sign on a bus stop in London, England. The more infectious coronavirus variant first detected in the U.K. is now in Canada. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

Fisman said there are still a lot of unknowns with variants. While it’s been proven B117 is more transmissible than previous strains, it’s not entirely clear what that means in terms of how people are likely to get infected. 

“That doesn’t tell us that they infect people after shorter exposure, it doesn’t tell us that there’s greater propensity to create aerosols,” he said. “So a lot of this stuff is by definition to be determined.” 

Fisman said additional precautions taken in places like York Region exemplify the “precautionary principle” of erring on the side of caution when faced with a lack of scientific evidence — a key lesson from the 2003 SARS epidemic. 

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University, said the lack of movement on public health guidelines from the federal government has left it up to local authorities to make decisions on risk. 

“They’re going to make decisions based on where they see,” he said. “They do risk assessments on more than just what the rules provide — the rules are supposed to be a guideline to them.” 

Alberta changed its self-isolation rules this week for those infected with variants. It’s now calling for quarantining of contacts for up to 24 days in some cases in response to the added threat of infection they pose.

“This risk assessment is getting very patchy and it’s really confusing,” Chagla said. “But it doesn’t mean that you have to create new rules out of nowhere.” 

He said it’s important that public health units are flexible in their assessment of risk, but the lack of coordination at a national level leaves a lot of room for confusion.

“You would like some centralization based on the science and we’re hearing different things across the country in terms of quarantine and what an exposure risk is,” he said. 

“Are people going to really adhere when again the rules keep changing left and right?”  

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Director of UBC’s school of public health resigns over holiday travel during pandemic

Peter Berman has resigned as director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health just over a week after admitting to holiday travel during the school’s winter break.

Berman announced his resignation in a Friday statement posted online. He said it would take effect at the end of the day.

“I took this difficult decision based on my assessment that the conditions of distress and division currently prevailing at SPPH make it impossible for me to continue to provide effective leadership to grow and develop our school, our community and our profession in my role as SPPH director,” Berman said in a statement.

“I deeply regret any actions of mine that may have caused this situation. I am grateful to the many of you who have shared messages of support to me directly or to others in our community and faculty. I also respect the many different views expressed by those in our wider community.”

Berman said in a letter posted last week that he travelled to Hawaii.

Both provincial and federal authorities in Canada have repeatedly advised against unnecessary travel — especially international travel — as B.C. and other jurisdictions grapple with a second wave of coronavirus infections.

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Military medical intelligence warnings gathered dust as public health struggled to define COVID-19

Public health officials failed to cite early warnings about the threat of COVID-19 gathered through classified military intelligence as the pandemic crisis emerged a year ago, CBC News has learned — an oversight described as a strategic failure by intelligence and public health experts.

For over seven decades, Canada and some of its closest allies have operated a largely secret formal exchange of military medical intelligence. That relationship regularly produces troves of highly detailed data on emerging health threats.

The small, specialized unit within the Canadian military’s intelligence branch began producing warnings about COVID-19 in early January of last year — assessments based largely on classified allied intelligence. Those warnings generally were three weeks ahead of other open sources, say defence insiders.

But documents show the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) COVID-19 rapid risk assessments — which politicians and public servants used to guide their choices in early days of the pandemic — contained no input from the military’s warnings, which remain classified.

Three of the five PHAC risk assessments — obtained under access to information law by one of the country’s leading intelligence experts and CBC News — show federal health officials relying almost exclusively on assessments from the World Health Organization.

Even those writing the risk assessment reports acknowledged the dearth of intelligence.

Confidence level ‘low’

“Due to the limited epidemiologic data from China, and limited virologic information available for the etiologic agent, the confidence level for this assessment is considered as ‘low’ and the algorithm outputs remain uncertain at this time,” said the Feb. 2, 2020 PHAC risk assessment report.

The analysts at PHAC were uncertain because — as the world learned later — China was stonewalling the WHO about the extent of the Wuhan outbreak and assuring international health experts that everything was under control.

Biosafety Officer Dr. David Harbourt speaks about protective suits for handling viral diseases in a biosafety level 4 training facility at U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, in the military medical community, alarm bells were ringing. In the U.S., the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), located in Fort Detrick, Maryland, was not only gathering raw intelligence through various classified means — it was producing comprehensive assessments of the trajectory of the virus as of last February.

“This coronavirus pandemic is right in their wheelhouse, which is part of their core mission — to be on the lookout for any early indications of infectious disease,” said Dr. Jonathan Clemente, a physician practicing in Charlotte, North Carolina who has researched and written extensively about the history of medical intelligence.

‘Strategic surprise’

The original purpose of military medical intelligence among the allies was to assess sanitary and health conditions in the places around the globe where their troops were deployed.

But over the years, Clemente said, the mandate evolved to include “preventing strategic surprise” — such as pandemics and deliberate biological attacks. 

“So there’s a wide range of reports, from your short-form daily bulletins to long-form assessments,” he said.

“It’s important to know that this is different from, say, the World Health Organization because the NCMI has access to all-source intelligence, meaning they have access to the most secret levels of intelligence, including clandestine human reporting, satellites, signals intelligence and … open [source] reporting.”

The information gathered through such intelligence channels would be knowledge “that other traditional health care and public health agencies” don’t have, he added. It’s also the kind of knowledge that would have informed the Canadian military’s medical intelligence branch as the pandemic was gathering momentum.

‘A terrible failure’

The fact that PHAC didn’t track what the military medical intelligence branch was seeing, coupled with changes to the federal government’s own Global Pandemic Health Information Network (GPHIN), represent “a terrible failure,” said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor who studies intelligence services and national security. He requested the documents through the access to information law.

The auditor general is reviewing what went wrong with the country’s early warning system, including the risk assessments. Flaws in those assessments may have affected the introduction of anti-pandemic measures such as border closures and mask mandates.

Security intelligence expert Wesley Wark says Canada’s failure to incorporate military intelligence into its COVID-19 rapid risk assessments was a fundamental error. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A second, separate independent review of Canada’s early pandemic response has been ordered by Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

CBC News first reported last spring that the military medical intelligence branch (MEDINT) began writing reports and issuing warnings about COVID-19 in January 2020. At the time, a spokesperson for MEDINT would not comment “on the content of intelligence reports that we receive or share.”

A follow-up investigation by CBC News has shed more light on the long-established secret network the allies use to warn each of health threats.

It’s governed by an obscure forum going by a rather clunky name: the Quadripartite Medical Intelligence Committee (QMIC).

A ‘Five Eyes’ network for pandemics

Originating in the Second World War, the forum allows the American, Canadian, British and Australian militaries to exchange classified global health data and assessments about emerging health threats.

Clemente describes it as the medical equivalent of the better-known Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Clemente said that, through U.S. freedom of information law, he has compiled a comprehensive, declassified portrait of the deep health intelligence ties between allies — especially between Canada and the U.S.

He said he also has collected reports and analyses on how NCMI tracked and assessed previous pandemics and disease outbreaks, including SARS, H1N1 and Ebola.

Those assessments — copies of which were obtained by CBC News — are very precise and complete. The U.S. military’s assessments of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes remain classified, but Clemente said it’s certain that NCMI was doing similar surveillance on COVID-19 which would have been shared with allies.

Wark said Canada’s public health system was redesigned almost two decades ago with the aim of preventing “strategic surprise,” but many of initiatives planned or implemented following the SARS outbreak were allowed to wither away and die.

One 2004 proposal which fell by the wayside was to find a mechanism that would allow PHAC to seamlessly incorporate classified intelligence into its system of reporting.

Greg Fyffe, the former executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office (which supports the prime minister’s office), said military medical intelligence assessments rarely came across his desk during his tenure a decade ago.

He said that when intelligence reports reach the highest levels of government, they often arrive in summary form and analysts occasionally have to seek out more details.

“There’s so much intelligence information out there that it’s not a matter of saying … ‘I have a little bit of something that you’d like to see,'” said Fyffe. “We’re talking about huge volumes of material which can’t all be shared.”

In a year-end interview with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the suggestion that better early warnings could have stopped COVID-19 from spreading to Canada.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on pandemic early warnings

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton about the lessons learned from his government’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what should’ve been done sooner and his conversations with U.S. President Donald Trump about shutting down non-essential travel along the border. 5:58

“I think we used all the resources that we always have to follow and monitor,” he said. “I don’t know that it would have made a huge difference for us to have extra reporting on top of what we were getting.”

The prime minister said that, in hindsight, there were things “we probably would have wanted to have done sooner in terms of preparing,” such as bolstering stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies.

‘We could have been much better prepared’

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan indicated in a year-end interview that he shared the information he had and there were “many conversations” within the government. 

While he cautioned that military intelligence alone can’t cover global disease surveillance, he did acknowledge that Canada’s early warning mechanisms need a serious review “from a whole-of-government perspective … making sure we have the right sensors out.”

Preparation is the whole point of early warning, said Wark, who agreed with Trudeau’s assessment of the volatility of the novel coronavirus’s transmission.

“We wouldn’t have stopped it from coming to Canada,” said Wark. “That would have been impossible. But we could have been much better prepared to meet its onslaught, and we were not. We suffered a terrible failure of early warning, of intelligence, of risk assessment.

“And the main lesson that has to be drawn … from the experience of COVID-19 is that we have to fix all of those things. We have to have a better early warning system.”

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Public health agency president says employee’s trip to Jamaica was ‘unacceptable’

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada says it is “unacceptable” that one of the agency’s managers ignored advice and vacationed in Jamaica last fall.

Iain Stewart said that although the trip taken by Dominique Baker in November was not related to her work for the federal agency, its employees are expected to heed public health advice not to travel.

Baker has now removed a blog post from her personal style blog and videos from her Instagram account about an all-expenses paid trip she took to an expensive resort in Montego Bay in November.

Her bosses were alerted to the trip just as a series of stories emerged about politicians and health officials ignoring the warning not to travel while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

Baker is the manager of the office of border and travel health — a Public Health Agency of Canada program tasked with keeping communicable diseases out of Canada and reducing public health risks to travellers.

Baker has not responded to an email requesting comment.

Her trip was paid for by Air Canada Vacations as part of its work hiring social media “influencers” to promote their tours. The November 24 blog post Baker published about the trip is no longer online.

The federal public health agency “takes these matters very seriously,” Stewart said.

“PHAC has consistently told Canadians they should avoid travel during the pandemic,” he said. “To have employees disregard this travel advice is unacceptable. As a general principle, we expect PHAC employees to encourage Canadians to follow public health advice, not to engage in non-essential travel.”

He said the agency became aware of the trip after photos were posted on social media as part of a campaign to promote international vacations.

“When the situation was brought to PHAC’s attention, the matter was acted upon immediately and a review was initiated. We will not comment further to respect the employee’s privacy.”

Baker’s videos included a description of what it was like to fly during the pandemic, and the precautions taken by the airline and the hotel to keep people safe.

Stewart also was asked whether there was an ethical issue with an employee accepting a free trip. He said the agency has a Values and Ethics Code which requires employees to declare any “real, potential or apparent” conflict of interest.

Stewart did not say if Baker is being disciplined for the trip, or if she declared any conflict related to it.

In the last two weeks, the list of federal and provincial politicians and health officials whose international vacations have gone public has grown long. Several MPs and provincial legislature members and staffers have been demoted from cabinet or have lost roles on committees and as cabinet aides as a result.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration earlier this week about Canadian politicians who were failing to lead by example and ignoring the request not to travel internationally.

Canada’s border is closed to non-essential travellers, but there is nothing stopping Canadians from leaving if they wish. Canada cannot stop Canadians from returning, though they must quarantine for two weeks upon their arrival back in Canada.

As of Tuesday, all international travellers coming to Canada must provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test but still must quarantine upon arrival.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Tuesday Canada does not want to join the small list of countries that require citizens to get permission before leaving the country, but he said anything that helps convince Canadians not to travel right now is “something we’re prepared to look at.”

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