Skip to main content

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, attends a news conference in Ottawa near the onset of the pandemic in March, 2020. On Friday, she defended her agency’s response to the threat of COVID-19.Blair Gable/Reuters

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer says her agency wasn’t wrong when it rated the risk of COVID-19 to the country as low in early 2020, a ranking that the federal Auditor-General says was concerning and based on a faulty assessment tool.

At a news conference on Friday, Theresa Tam said the low-risk assessment was to show a moment in time rather than the potential risk the coronavirus posed to Canadians. However, she said her agency is now more focused on its forward-looking risk assessments, rather than only capturing the immediate risk posed by a disease.

“It was not wrong, it’s just that it is important to also provide what that future state might be like,” Dr. Tam said. Public-health agencies, she said, “need to be prediction organizations and not just being able to assess the risk of that present moment.”

The agency’s 2019 departmental report lists “predicting, detecting, assessing and responding to outbreaks and new threats” as one of the agency’s “core responsibilities.”

Is my area coming out of COVID-19 lockdown? Can I travel out-of-province? A guide to restrictions across Canada

On Thursday, the federal Auditor-General released a scathing report, outlining the multiple ways in which the Public Health Agency of Canada was unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The report found that the agency hadn’t updated its emergency response and management plans, didn’t adequately test its pandemic plans and used a risk-assessment tool that was not designed for a pandemic.

Because the tool did not look at the projected spread of a disease, Auditor-General Karen Hogan said Thursday, the agency incorrectly assessed Canada’s risk as low until March 16, when it was changed to a high-risk ranking.

“The domestic risk at that moment in time for the cases in Canada was relatively low,” Dr. Tam said Friday.

Ms. Hogan said the risk assessments are used to adjust the government of Canada’s response domestically. “The fact that the tool did not consider the risk of a pandemic or the particularity of a pandemic and remained at low is concerning,” she said. The Auditor-General credited Dr. Tam for intervening to eventually have the risk level corrected.

Dr. Tam told reporters Friday that she knew before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, that the risk to Canada was high. She said a key turning point for her was when B.C. announced its first case of community spread. That was announced on March 5. The Public Health Agency of Canada raised its risk assessment on March 16.

Dr. Tam did not explain to reporters why the agency waited those 11 days to make the change in risk.

In early March last year, Dr. Tam said she thought that COVID-19′s risk “can’t possibly be low” but she also said her agency did not minimize the potential impact of the pandemic and prepared itself by building up lab testing capacity, airlifting people out of countries with high levels of COVID-19 and regularly meeting with public-health leaders in the provinces and territories.

On Friday, Dr. Tam also released new current COVID-19 modelling that shows a strong resurgence of COVID-19 owing in large part to the increasing prevalence of variants of concern. The modelling shows that Canada could surpass one million cases of COVID-19 by April 4 and that the number of people who die as a result of the disease could reach 23,315 by the same date.

As of Thursday evening, 22,790 people have died because of COVID-19 in Canada.

Dr. Theresa Tam says COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to smother the pandemic in Canada but she urges slow and cautious removal of public health restrictions so they can be of maximum benefit. Reopening too soon, especially as more contagious variants spread, will likely just mean slamming things shut again after people get sick.

The Canadian Press

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.