Health Minister Patty Hajdu listens at a COVID-19 press conference in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. An interim examination of why the federal government's pandemic early warning system failed to send up a formal alert on COVID-19 has been released. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

Public health pandemic ‘alert’ system didn’t operate as intended for COVID-19: report

An interim review of why Ottawa’s early pandemic warning system failed to issue a formal alert on COVID-19 has described a lack of detailed knowledge of the system by senior managers.

The audit dated Feb. 26, and released on Saturday, was ordered by federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu after reports the Global Public Health Intelligence Network didn’t operate as intended at the onset of the pandemic.

The interim report concluded the monitoring system did identify the outbreak of the pneumonia that would become COVID-19 on the night of Dec. 30, 2019, and included this information from Wuhan, China, in a special report to Canadian public health officials the next day.

But the report notes that without sending up a formal alert, international partners that rely on Canada’s information were left to rely on other sources.

“That (the system) identified early open‑source signals of what would become COVID‑19 and promptly alerted senior management does not mean that the system is operating as smoothly or as clearly as it could and should,” the report concluded.

“As international subscribers only receive alerts, some jurisdictions did not receive an early signal directly.”

The review panel includes Mylaine Breton and Paul Gully, who are both experts in public health and health policy, and Margaret Bloodworth, who has a background in national security.

The panel’s report also found that prior to the pandemic, the alert system lacked standard operating procedures. Senior managers also didn’t fully understand the rationale and the intended audience for alerts, it added.

The system is set up to gather thousands of internet-based media reports from around the globe, which are narrowed down to items that are deemed credible enough for public health officials to explore further and compiled into a daily report.

But more serious items about potential pandemics and other risks were to result in “alerts,” where subscribers are told “there is a signal they may wish to take notice of or follow up on,” the report said.

The review found there were no written procedures governing the issuance of these alerts prior to fall 2020.

“The panel has also heard from some senior management directly overseeing (the system) who could not describe the purpose or audience for alerts, and may not have had a complete understanding of their intent,” the report read.

The system was set up in the 1990s to scan the internet for open source news and early signals of health threats. Over time, it received upgrades to allow it to use human analysis to track the threats and — according to the review — provided the World Health Organization with about 20 per cent of its early-stage intelligence on epidemics.

There’s been a wide variation of the frequency of these alerts over the past 10 years, with 887 sent out in 2009 — largely in relation to the H1N1 pandemic — followed by 198 in 2013, corresponding with the H7N9 outbreak. Only one, in contrast, was issued in May 2019.

The panelists say it’s clear that “some form of direction was given to pause the alert process,” and that the level of approval for alerts was elevated and then downgraded at least once.

However, the authors said so far they haven’t seen any written documentation on the timeline of those changes, who requested them and why they might have occurred.

The panel will continue its review in the coming months by looking deeper into the context of how the system operates. That includes a high degree of staff turnover and a decline in the number of internal experts with public health credentials.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kids at Lotsa’Tots West Day Care in Red Deer act out how a caterpillar moves with co-owner and instructor Shireen Sewcharran-Wiebe. Child care providers are hoping Alberta’s provincial government will help fund the national child care program announced this week. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alberta day care providers hope Alberta will get onboard with national child care program

Some question whether the UCP’s ideology will stand in the way

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Town council from the largest municipality in Nixon's constituency is concerned over the province's consultation plans for open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Town of Rocky Mountain House wants better coal consultation

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Town council from the largest municipality in… Continue reading

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming for more financial literacy learning in junior and senior high schools

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

Two roundabouts will be built at each end of the Highway 2 and McKenzie Road overpass in Red Deer County at the south end of Gasoline Alley. Major detours will be in place this summer while construction is underway. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Powerline work causes delays on Highway 2 in Red Deer

Southbound drivers on the QEII are experiencing delays Wednesday morning. Powerline work… Continue reading

Ponoka RCMP said Traytyn Okeymow, 22, was last seen at this residence at about 9:45 p.m. on April 4. (Photo contributed)
Missing man located by Ponoka RCMP

Ponoka RCMP seek public’s help

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘We hope to help a little more’: Biden says he spoke to Trudeau about more vaccines

WASHINGTON — Canada can look forward to an unexpected shot in the… Continue reading

The Mission Correctional Institution in Mission, B.C. is pictured Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A new federal study found that people released from prison were much more likely than the general population to have trouble finding gainful employment, even over a decade after returning to society. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Ease employment hurdles for former prison inmates, federal study urges

OTTAWA — A new federal study found that people released from prison… Continue reading

Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem holds a press conference at the Bank Of Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bank of Canada keeps rate on hold, sees brighter economic outlook

OTTAWA — The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. Tam says new information on COVID-19 and variants prompted the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to suddenly cancel its planned update on who should get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
AstraZeneca advice from national panel delayed by new data on COVID-19 and variants

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new information on COVID-19… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pressured to adopt tougher emissions target for Biden climate summit

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to step up… Continue reading

Passengers from Air India flight 187 from New Delhi wait for their transportation to quarantine after arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
ICU pressures mount as COVID fells younger people; Ottawa mulls India travel ban

TORONTO — Amid mounting pressures on critical care in hospitals and concerns… Continue reading

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Three confidence votes to determine fate of minority Liberal government

OTTAWA — A pair of proposed changes to the federal budget put… Continue reading

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland talks with parents during a virtual discussion on child care in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Freeland is calling for patience and “flexibility” in response to questions about the government’s criteria for reopening the economy and border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Freeland urges patience as business looks for answers on reopening border, economy

OTTAWA — Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is urging Canadian companies to… Continue reading

Most Read