OTTAWA — A month into the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians were ready to pull out all the stops. Car manufacturers were looking into making ventilators, while thousands of citizens volunteered to help the health system.
In Ottawa, federal bureaucrats were spotting problems months before they became political crises, and tried to craft ways for governments to prevent suffering, according to internal documents obtained by the Free Press.
The proposals included repurposing unused buildings into isolation wards, getting idle public servants to do contact tracing, and paying out-of-work students to help the elderly.
Yet few of these proposals were ever put in place.
"It is mystifying to look at this list of very, very good ideas," said Dr. David Fisman, a leading epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.
"It's quite foresighted; they're looking ahead and saying 'Well these are going to be issues' — and they were right; these were issues. But why didn't this get off the ground?" he said. "It's sort of upsetting."
Health Canada's strategic policy branch examines trends in healthcare, and tries to create solutions for governments and non-profit groups to save money and lives.
Here are some of the ideas that team proposed in the first five weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, ending in mid-April.
Paid to sit at home
Closed offices left thousands of public servants sitting at home unable to do their normal jobs. Bureaucrats suggested Ottawa redeploy staff for contact tracing, as had been done in Ireland.
Yet the only publicly known federal help has come through Statistics Canada staff, who were diverted to helping provinces with calls in May.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates Ottawa spent at least $828 million between March and June 2020 on 241,294 federal employees who at various times sat at home unable to work — while provinces struggled with contact-tracing capacity.
"Health Canada leveraged federal public-service resources with access to secure systems/equipment and security screening requirements," wrote Health Canada spokesman Martin Bégin, who did not specify if any agency other than Statistics Canada provided staff to provinces.
In April, Health Canada issued an online callout for volunteers, and had 53,769 Canadians step up in just three weeks, including 1,153 Manitobans.
An April 17 slideshow notes that "about 4,000 registrants have self-identified as having pertinent experience" to helping with people in long-term care.
Health Canada says that by September, 24,717 volunteers with a medical background were referred out to provinces, largely for paid work, occasionally facilitated through the Canadian Red Cross.
Yet the department said its hastily created database makes it impossible to tell how many volunteers provinces actually used for paid and unpaid work.
"The campaign inventory continues to be active and is being used in the current phase of our pandemic response," wrote Bégin.
"Provincial stakeholders have indicated that the campaign inventory is an important resource."
Leaning on students
In late March, bureaucrats assembled a contact list of all university heads, and a formal letter asking for help recruiting students with some medical knowledge to help with testing, as well as possibly using campus lab space for COVID-19 tests.
A faculty group said roughly 6,000 medical students had enough training to safely help in settings outside of hospitals, to alleviate pressure on health systems. Some universities offered equipment to be used in testing.
Health Canada did not say if any of those offers were taken up.
The bureaucrats also suggested leveraging the Canada Summer Jobs program to have young people help in personal care homes, anticipating burnout from spring outbreaks. The long-standing program provides 80,000 summer jobs bankrolled by the federal government, including in Winnipeg care homes like Donwood Manor.
Instead of leveraging that program, the Trudeau government attempted a general volunteer scheme for non-profit needs through WE Charity, which became a political scandal.
Tapping unused buildings
The bureaucrats also suggested surplus federal buildings could be used to isolate residents of personal care homes with COVID-19 outbreaks.
The federal government owns land across the country sitting idle or in the process of being divested, such as the decommissioned drug lab at 510 Lagimodière Blvd.
It's unclear if anyone sought to evacuate residents during the large-scale outbreaks in Winnipeg's Parkview and Maples care homes this fall.
The bureaucrats also warned that exhausted personal care homes would likely start turning to people who work in homecare, particularly if care homes started boosting pay. It appears Ottawa's support for provinces tried to account for this reality by allowing homecare workers to access pay top-ups for providing an essential service.
The provincial dynamic
The Trudeau government has offered money and guidance to provinces, leaving it largely up to them to decide how to structure healthcare and restrictions.
Fisman says Ottawa's approach hasn't been perfect, but he argues provinces are largely to blame for leaving funding allocations untapped, and fumbling vaccine distribution.
"The provincial nature of health is such that the feds can lead the horse to water, but the horse has to decide it's thirsty," he said.
Health Canada refused an interview with the senior official who oversees the department's policy shop, making it impossible to know which ideas were logistically impossible, and which ones fell victim to red tape and inter-governmental squabbling.