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Canada’s public health system needs renewal, chief officer Dr. Theresa Tam says

‘We were not prepared to face a public health emergency of the magnitude of COVID-19’
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Canada’s chief public health officer is urging the federal government to make fundamental changes so the country is better equipped to handle future and present health threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call on the need for “public health renewal” in Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam said Monday.

“Simply put, we were not prepared to face a public health emergency of the magnitude of COVID-19,” Tam said at a press briefing.

The call isn’t new, Tam acknowledged, noting her predecessors have been making the same pleas since 2008.

“Already stretched thin before the pandemic, the public health workforce is overextended and may not have the capacity to counter the next emergency,” Tam wrote in her annual report, tabled Monday in the House of Commons.

“There are still unacceptable delays in getting the right data to inform public health decision-making. Society-wide inequities persist, and key social and economic policies started during COVID-19 may not be sustained. These vulnerabilities could weaken Canada’s resilience to future health threats.”

Tam fears the pandemic recovery will focus solely on the demands of the health-care system, which could overshadow the need to bolster public health.

Shoring up public health means improving Canada’s data collection and surveillance, she wrote.

Tam says gaps in Canada’s ability to collect data about the pandemic hindered the country’s response.

“This fragmentation, alongside outdated technology, has especially pronounced consequences during health emergencies when access to data for real-time decision-making is paramount,” she wrote.

Federal, provincial and territorial governments are working on a pan-Canadian data strategy, but the timelines are not fast enough, Tam said.

The public health workforce also needs bolstering, with sufficient surge capacity to rapidly expand the ranks in an emergency.

In addition, Tam warned the government against scaling back public health funding once the emergency has passed, as governments often do, which could leave Canada at a disadvantage at the onset of the next crisis.

Tam says she’s calling for a clearer public health mandate, so that everyone knows what providers are being asked to deliver.

She hopes that will inform coming discussions between the provinces and territories about health-care transfers and the resources required.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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