As the Liberal government announced $1 billion to battle coronavirus, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said COVID-19 could ultimately infect between 30 and 70 per cent of Canadians.
Hajdu was facing questions in committee from the NDP’s health critic Don Davies about the potential spread of the disease in Canada and just how prepared the government was to handle an increase in cases.
“Can we expect a thousand or 5,000? Do you have those numbers or not? I have asked this question repeatedly and I am never getting an answer from the government,” said Davies at the committee.
Hajdu said the government is preparing for the worst, because so much is unknown.
“It is irresponsible to give you a number, because we don’t know. The science is not clear, because there are a range of numbers that have happened in various countries,” she said. “I would say it is safe to assume that it could be between 30 per cent of the population — that acquire COVID-19 — and 70 per cent.”
That would mean of Canada’s 37.6 million people, somewhere between 11. 3 million and 26.3 million could contract the virus.
Davies asked how the government would keep up with the demand for items like respirators, if that many Canadians got sick.
Hajdu said they’re planning to buy more supplies, but their efforts are about flattening the curve of cases, so the health system isn’t suddenly overwhelmed.
“The intent of flattening the curve is to ensure that everyone doesn’t get sick at once,” she said. “We all have a role to play in reducing the curve; the curve, the extreme peak of illness all at once, is what puts your health system in crisis.”
Earlier Wednesday, the government announced $1 billion for a variety of measures meant to reduce the risk that the virus will spread rapidly.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the money will include $500 million to the provinces to aid their responses as well as $275 million for research. There was also $100 million for the federal response, which includes support to national testing labs, Indigenous communities and bulk buying of protective equipment.
“I want all premiers and all Canadians to know our government is here for you. We will make sure you have everything you need,” said Trudeau.
Canada’s premiers are coming to Ottawa for previously scheduled first minister’s meetings on Thursday and Friday. The money to provinces will be distributed with the same approach the government regularly uses for health transfers.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he appreciates the support, but the federal transfer will amount to about $60 million for his province, which is shy of what they expect the virus will cost the health system.
“Our initial estimate of the prospective costs to the health system is $80 million, so it doesn’t cover that.”
Trudeau also announced a change to the employment insurance program, waiving the mandatory one-week waiting period. This will allow those who self-isolate or quarantine to apply for money immediately.
He said the government doesn’t want anyone to fear losing their job because of the illness.
“No-one should have to worry about their job if they have to be quarantined. No employer should feel like they have to lay off a worker because of the virus. We can support you and we will.”
The government is also boosting funding for a work share program that helps in situations where employers reduce hours, because of a drop in business.
The research funding will come on top of the $27 million the government has already announced this week. Hajdu said the Canadian research community has good ideas
“We had a volume of responses from researchers across the country that were also excellent proposals. Amplifying our ability to fund those proposals at this time allows us to much more quickly generate the research,” she said. “It is obviously a Canadian response in terms of research, but it contributes to the global community of researchers who are working so quickly.”
Trudeau said the aid package was just the government’s first move and he was open to expanding it further.
“We are ready to do more as the situation warrants it,” he said.
Trudeau said Canada’s current strong economy means the government has room to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
“The message we have for Canadians and for Canadian business is that we will be there for them.”
It is irresponsible to give you a number, because we don’t know
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said they’re still learning more about the virus everyday, but it is definitely a considerable challenge and well-suited to spread in a community.
“It is probably a virus that has hit the sweet spot. It isn’t completely lethal, so there are people with mild illness and a range of clinical symptoms that can transmit the virus,” she said. “Viruses always have surprises, which is why we have to keep monitoring it.”
In question period, Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux asked why the government wasn’t mandating people coming back from high-risk countries like China, South Korea, Italy or Iran to stay in quarantine.
“The government has the ability under the Quarantine Act to require all individuals who have visited high-risk areas to be placed in quarantine. When will they use it?”
Hajdu said they’re using the border to inform people about risks and connect them to important information. She said closing borders or mandating quarantine might feel like a good response, but the science doesn’t support that approach.
“We have to take decisions that are actually about protecting the health and safety of Canadians,” she said. “I will use the evidence that is provided to me.”
The illness has sickened more than 100,000 people around the world and led to mass quarantines and restrictions on public gatherings.
WHAT IS THE CORONAVIRUS?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illness in humans and animals. In humans, they can range from the common cold to the more dangerous Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The current coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, is a novel coronavirus, meaning it has never been observed in humans before.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
The most common symptoms are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. In more serious cases, those infected can experience trouble breathing.
The time between catching the virus and beginning to experience symptoms can range from 1-14 days.
HOW DO YOU AVOID GETTING INFECTED?
Frequently wash your hands with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand wipe, avoid touching your face and keep distance from people showing symptoms.
WHAT HAS THE IMPACT OF THE VIRUS BEEN?
The virus, which originated December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 128,000 people worldwide and has caused 4,717 deaths
HOW DEADLY IS THE CORONAVIRUS?
The death rate for those infected with the virus is roughly two per cent. Around 80 per cent of people recover without special treatment and one in six people fall seriously ill. Older people with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to the virus.
HOW MANY IN CANADA ARE INFECTED?
Canada currently has 93 cases.
WHERE HAS THE VIRUS SPREAD?
Although most cases are in China, more than 35 countries have experienced at least one confirmed case of COVID-19. Italy is the worst hit country outside of China with more than 12,000 infections and 800 deaths.
Police turn to an elaborate sting operation after the investigation into a woman’s death goes cold. Listen to Episode 3 of She’s Gone.