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Canada’s top doctor says COVID-19 will likely become endemic


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Canada’s top doctor says COVID-19 will likely become endemic

OTTAWA—Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the COVID-19 pandemic may end with an endemic form of the virus, as opposition MPs grilled government officials Tuesday on this country’s ability to ride out the Omicron surge.

“I think many experts believe that so-called herd immunity may not be achievable with this virus because it undergoes constant evolution. So what you’re looking at is this endemic state where people will get reinfected over time as immunity wanes,” Tam told members of the House of Commons health committee.

“It will also be determined by the appearance of variants that may invade the immune system as well. So I think that the reality is going to be more like an endemic virus,” she said.

When asked by NDP health critic Don Davies what criteria the federal government required to officially make that determination, Tam said such an assessment would have to be made at the international level.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also faced questions about Canada’s health-care capacity and level of preparedness for an Omicron-fuelled rise in cases, as hospitals across the country strain under record levels of COVID-19 infections.

Duclos’ appearance before the committee was his first since taking on the federal health portfolio last fall. Aside from Tam, he was joined by several high-level health and procurement bureaucrats.

Opposition MPs trained their sights on the minister, pressing him on a range of issues that included Canada’s relatively low number of acute care hospital beds per capita, shortages of health-care workers during the Omicron surge, and procurement of rapid tests to help weather the latest wave of the virus.

Stephen Ellis, a Conservative MP from Nova Scotia, charged the Liberal government had shown a “failure of leadership” during the pandemic by not building enough health care capacity to allow provinces to avoid the restrictions imposed in recent weeks — including school and restaurant closures in Ontario.

Pointing to the Liberals promise during the 2021 federal election to hire another 7,500 health-care professionals, Ellis repeatedly asked Duclos to say how many had been hired. But Duclos refused to answer and instead referred to $63 billion he said the government has earmarked for health care during the pandemic.

Duclos said “thousands” of health-care workers are being paid and recruited with this money, but he did not provide any further specifics.

The NDP, meanwhile, is calling on the government to fast-track the immigration of health-care workers, as well as a national strategy on human resources in health care. When Davies asked about that strategy at Wednesday’s committee meeting, Duclos said he agrees lack of staff is a “key challenge” in health-care systems across Canada.

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“We’ll continue to do the right thing, which is to support the efforts of provinces and territories to train, hire and to retain those health-care workers,” Duclos said.

Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault picked up a similar theme, echoing calls from Canada’s premiers for Ottawa to increase annual federal transfers for health care by about $28 billion. When Duclos referred again to the government’s pandemic spending for health, Thériault suggested he was playing “politics on the backs of COVID patients” and asked whether it would take a sixth or seventh wave of the pandemic before the government committed to “structural” increases in health funding.

“What are you waiting for?” Thériault demanded.

Luc Berthold, a Conservative MP from Quebec, pressed Duclos on the federal government’s provision of rapid tests during the Omicron wave, alleging Ottawa has been slow to respond to demands for the tests amid soaring infections.

“Why wasn’t the government prepared?” he charged.

Duclos responded that the government is planning to deliver 140 million rapid tests to provinces by the end of January, and noted that provincial requests for such tests have skyrocketed with Omicron.

Health officials also said there were no plans to add booster shots to Canada’s definition of what constitutes a fully vaccinated person — which, in most cases, means someone who has received two doses of a vaccine accepted for travel. Tam said reviewing that definition would come only after more Canadians had received a booster, a figure Duclos said is currently sitting at 34 per cent.

Both Tam and Duclos have also been called before Parliament’s privacy and ethics committee to face scrutiny over Ottawa’s decision to use mobile location data to monitor the travel patterns of millions of Canadians throughout the pandemic.

Duclos said Tuesday he would be “pleased” to attend any committee proceedings. While Tam confirmed that the Public Health Agency of Canada would also attend to support the minister, she said that because she was not directly involved in the program, the agency would put forward a more suitable witness.

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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