The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, the department in charge of the country’s pandemic preparedness and response strategy, has resigned.
Tina Namiesniowski, who was appointed to the job in May, 2019, informed staff in an internal e-mail on Friday that she was stepping aside. Her departure comes as PHAC faces questions over its handling of the country’s pandemic surveillance system, and its oversight of the emergency stockpile of protective equipment, while case numbers of COVID-19 rise across the country.
In the e-mail, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ms. Namiesniowski said the job has taken a toll on her this year and she plans to reconnect with family.
“This is a very difficult decision for me but I think it’s the right one,” Ms. Namiesniowski said.
“I am now at the point where I need to take a break. Since it makes no sense for the agency to be without a president for any length of time given current circumstances, I feel I must step aside so someone else can step up,” she said.
The e-mail said a new president of the agency would be named next week.
“You really need someone who will have the energy and the stamina to take the agency and our response to the next level,” Ms. Namiesniowski said in the e-mail. “And, even though I might not have accomplished everything I would have liked to have done, I truly hope the foundation for change I’ve championed … will help serve as a road map going forward.”
The resignation follows a series of problems at the agency. These include the controversial curtailing of the country’s pandemic early warning and surveillance system in late 2018 and early 2019, which critics have said caused Canada to underestimate the threat of the outbreak; shortfalls in the national emergency stockpile that supply personal protective equipment to health care workers; and questions about whether Canada could have acted sooner to combat the virus.
The pandemic early warning and surveillance system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, had much of its capabilities cut back prior to the pandemic. Despite picking up on the outbreak Dec. 31, after word of the virus had already begun to spread internationally, Public Health rated the threat posed to the country as “Low.” This threat assessment stayed the same throughout January, February and much of March, even after the World Health Organization warned in late January that the risk was high, and told countries to begin preparing.
PHAC has been criticized for missing some of the earliest and most important signals of the outbreak, including evidence that China was dealing with a serious health threat for much of December, and subsequent signals, such as mounting evidence in January and February that human-to-human transmission was a high risk.
In her e-mail Friday, Ms. Namiesniowski said: “It is hard to believe that close to ten months has elapsed since the agency picked up the initial GPHIN signal on December 31st, 2019, about a cluster of cases in Wuhan of an unknown respiratory illness.” However, she did not reference the criticism facing PHAC for its handling of GPHIN.
Amid shifting government priorities, scientists within GPHIN were assigned to other jobs that did not involve pandemic preparedness, such as tracking the health effects of vaping in Canada. That led to a reduction in intelligence gathering at Public Health, which hindered the government’s ability to properly assess risk, scientists inside the department said.
GPHIN is now the subject of two federal investigations. The Auditor-General is probing the oversight of the pandemic early warning and surveillance system and, last week, Health Minister Patty Hajdu ordered an independent review into the matter.
Public Health is also now grappling with pressing issues in the months ahead, such as the ability to secure vaccine supplies for the country, and bracing for a resurgence of the outbreak this fall, which has already begun.
Ms. Namiesniowski joined the federal government in 1989, and has a background in political science. Her resignation comes after the departure last week of PHAC vice-president Sally Thornton, who oversaw the pandemic early warning system and emergency stockpile. Ms. Thornton, who has a background in business and law, retired, said a spokeswoman for Public Health.
Public Health scientists have told The Globe that the department has been hampered in recent years by an influx of top officials who lack a grounding in science, and that doctors and epidemiologists often struggled to get urgent and important messages up the chain of command, because complex issues needed to be oversimplified.
Ms. Namiesniowski said she will support the transition to a new president, and praised the work of Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam. “I’ve felt privileged to work alongside of her,” she said of Dr. Tam.
“I know you will welcome my replacement who will be named early next week with open arms as you did me,” the e-mail said. “Whoever arrives will have new energy, new ideas and the ability to provide exceptional support to you, the minister and the country.”
Ms. Hajdu said in a statement that Ms. Namiesniowski has shown “unwavering commitment” in the job, adding, “We are all grateful.”
A spokesman for the department said the government would not comment further on the departure.
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