Federal health agency wasn’t ready for pandemic equipment demand, auditor finds

The Public Health Agency of Canada was not adequately prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic because it ignored internal audits that found serious gaps in the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS), Canada’s auditor general reported today.

Auditor General Karen Hogan said the health agency’s management failed to address “long-standing issues” in how personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical devices were managed in the NESS, which was created in part to supply provinces and territories with crucial goods during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hogan found that PHAC had inadequate inventory control and it had little sense of how much PPE would be required if a pandemic hit our shores.

She concluded that — despite two separate audits that explored the sorry state of the NESS in 2010 and 2013 — the bureaucrats in charge of this national supply of N95 respirators and testing swabs and ventilators did little to make necessary changes.

“We found that information needed to govern, oversee and manage the federal stockpile was missing, outdated or lacked clarity. This had a negative impact on the operation of the federal stockpile,” said the AG’s review.

“As a result, the agency was not as prepared as it could have been to respond to provincial and territorial government needs.”

PHAC did not track the age or expiry date of some equipment — which meant that some of Canada’s existing supply of PPE was essentially useless by the time the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020.

The PHAC failed to track essential information “needed to ensure that inventory in the stockpile was not obsolete,” the review found.

The AG also found that some of PHAC’s PPE records were “inaccurate” and there was “a lack of timely and relevant management information,” which left the system struggling to keep up with insatiable demand from the provinces and territories in the early days of the crisis.

PHAC was sometimes “unable to correctly track items” at the eight federally managed warehouses, leaving officials in the dark about what they actually had on hand.

The AG also found, however, that once severity of the pandemic was better understood, PHAC, working in collaboration with Health Canada and Public Services and Procurement, worked to secure a more robust supply of PPE to address critical shortages experienced by some frontline health care workers and patients.

“When faced with the pressures created by the pandemic, the agency took action,” the AG’s review said. “We found that the agency improved how it assessed needs and purchased, allocated and distributed equipment.”

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