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Retired ER doc: B.C. pandemic report 'embodies everything that was wrong'

The COVID-19 Lessons Learned Review on the government’s response to the pandemic provided more confusion than clarity, says a retired emergency room physician. Dr.
Jamey Ekins, Shutterstock

The COVID-19 Lessons Learned Review on the government’s response to the pandemic provided more confusion than clarity, says a retired emergency room physician.

Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, of the grassroots Protect Our Province BC coalition of public health experts, wonders what the NDP government was really trying to achieve with the Dec. 2-released report.

“This is not independent. This is scope creep,” Filiatrault said in an interview. “They went outside of assessing the government response, they assessed the pandemic response, based on indicators that, in my mind, are not the correct indicator, and with useless data, which is the data that B.C. has based on under-testing, under-reporting.”

The report was delivered Sept. 23 to government, but not released until a Friday afternoon the week after the last Question Period of the fall session. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth participated in a short-notice conference call with reporters, who only had 43 minutes to read the 144 pages. The government tends to provide lengthy reports on an embargoed basis with a pre-announcement briefing with officials. But that did not happen in this case.

Last March, the NDP government chose three former senior bureaucrats, Bob de Faye, Dan Perrin and Chris Trumpy, to conduct the review. They were not allowed to investigate cabinet or provincial health officer decisions. De Faye’s career across various ministries included a stint as chief administrative officer of the Ministry of Health, but the others had no experience in healthcare.

“This report embodies everything that was wrong with the pandemic response in B.C., from the way it was released to the public on a Friday, poor communication, lack of transparency,” Filiatrault said, adding that it had been tailored around the government’s desired conclusion: “Look, we weren't prepared, but we did pretty damn good.”

The authors said B.C. got an “all of government response” to the outbreak in early 2020, when Filiatrault said the province really needed an “all of society response.” She called the response paternalistic, lacking transparency and goal-setting. The report found that the key agencies, Ministry of Health, Office of the Provincial Health Officer, Government Communications and Public Engagement, and Emergency Management BC, did not have a dynamic, comprehensive communications strategy.

“A more specific finding relates to the fact that communications needed to evolve over time because of high levels of uncertainty and ongoing changes in circumstances related to the pandemic,” it said. “The public just wanted certainty and were not prepared for continuous change. As a result, many interpreted changes to guidance as evidence of earlier mistakes, damaging trust. Efforts should be made to build tolerance for uncertainty and ongoing change.”

Filiatrault said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made policy based on viral transmission by droplets rather than mounting scientific evidence of aerosol transmission, choosing to focus on hand hygiene and plexiglas barriers, rather than mask-wearing and properly filtered indoor air. She said it was laughable that the report’s performance measures relied on the high rate of B.C. adults with two doses of vaccine, which is not enough to maintain immunity.

The closest the report got to hearing from people who may have been directly affected was a survey through the government’s online polling platform. The authors, however, used leading questions and claimed the 15,000 responses, many negative, weren’t representative of public opinion.

“They discredit what they found,” she said. “Really, you know, that's rule number one, when you don't like the results, criticize the data.”

In March 2003, Filiatrault helped identify and contain the first case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) at Vancouver General Hospital in a patient who had returned from Hong Kong.

The Ontario government set the standard for a pandemic review under Justice Archie Campbell. Campbell found Filiatrault and her VGH colleagues were among those who did everything right to contain the virus, while Ontario did not. His 2007 final report credited “robust worker safety and infection control culture, with better systemic preparedness” in B.C.

Campbell found Ontario’s response lacked proper communication, preparation, accountability and resources. His key recommendation was to adopt the precautionary principle across the entire healthcare system. “Safety comes first,” Campbell concluded. “That reasonable efforts to reduce risk need not await scientific proof.”