I call this meeting to order.
Welcome, everyone, to meeting number 15 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.
We are meeting today pursuant to the orders of reference of April 11 and April 20, 2020. The committee is meeting for the purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today's meeting is taking place entirely by video conference, and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. As at the last meeting, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
In order to facilitate the work of our interpreters and ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
First, interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of floor, English or French. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can either click on the microphone icon to activate your mike, or hold down the space bar while you are speaking, and when you release the space bar your mike will mute itself, just like a walkie-talkie.
I will remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. Should members need to request the floor outside of their designated time for questions, they should activate their mike and state that they have a point of order. If a member wishes to intervene on a point of order that has been raised by another member, they should use the “Raise Hand” function. This will signal to the chair your interest to speak. In order to do so, you should click on “Participants” at the bottom of the screen. When the list pops up, you will see, next to your name, that you can click “Raise Hand”.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. The use of headsets is strongly encouraged. If you have earbuds with a microphone, please hold the microphone near your mouth when you're speaking to boost the sound quality for our interpreters.
Should any technical challenges arise, for example, in relation to interpretation or if you are accidentally disconnected, please advise the chair or the clerk immediately and a technical team will work to resolve that. Please note that we may need to suspend during these times as we do need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
Before we get started, would everyone please check their screen in the top right-hand corner to ensure that they are on “Gallery” view. With this view, you should be able to see all the participants in a grid-like fashion. It will ensure that all video participants can see one another.
During this meeting, we will follow the same rules that usually apply to opening statements and the questioning of witnesses during our regular meetings. Each witness group will have 10 minutes for an opening statement, followed by the usual rounds of questions from members.
I'd like now to welcome our witnesses.
Yes indeed they are the challenges, but we are proceeding with questioning and with timing in the same way we would in a regular meeting. I do try to make allowances for technical issues of that kind. I give people extra time if, for example, the witnesses can't hear or cannot respond. In any case, as always, I will try to be scrupulously fair to everyone.
Carrying on, I would like now to welcome the witnesses.
For the Canadian Police Association, we have Tom Stamatakis, president.
For the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, we have Jeff Wilkins, national president; and Éric Thibault, national vice-president.
For the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we have Patrick Tanguy, assistant deputy minister, emergency management and programs.
For the Public Health Agency of Canada, we have Sally Thornton, vice-president, health security infrastructure branch; and Cindy Evans, acting vice-president, emergency management.
We will start with the Canadian Police Association.
Mr. Stamatakis, you have 10 minutes, please.
Mr. Chair, members of the committee, thank you for the invitation to appear before you this afternoon as you continue your study into the Canadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the opportunity to provide a front-line policing perspective on this important ongoing issue.
Before I begin, however, I want to first take a brief moment to offer my most sincere condolences to the family of Constable Heidi Stevenson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and all the victims of the horrific attack that took place in Nova Scotia this past weekend. I'd also like to offer my thanks to Prime Minister , Minister and all elected officials from all parties who have offered their kind words of support to our policing colleagues both in the RCMP and in other municipal services who have come together to help in this important ongoing investigation.
I particularly appreciate having the opportunity to appear virtually this week, as this was originally scheduled to be the week of our Canadian Police Association annual legislative conference, which gives our members the chance to come to Ottawa and meet with their federal elected officials. Obviously, COVID-19 has changed our plans. While we’ve already started planning for our 2021 conference, appearing before you gives me the chance to introduce our organization to the new members of the committee and reintroduce myself to some familiar faces.
The Canadian Police Association is the largest policing advocacy organization in the country, with over 55,000 civilian and sworn members who serve in police agencies from coast to coast to coast. Our members have been on the front lines of this pandemic from day one, working in close partnership with other first responders. While there has been a bit of a learning curve for all of us as we adapt to these new circumstances, I hope that this committee, and your eventual report, will help provide a framework to identify areas across multiple sectors that worked and where we need to improve in the future.
This pandemic again highlights the difficult circumstances that the members I represent typically face while attempting to perform their duties and keep the public safe. We often have no idea who we are interacting with in the community, and have little control over the environment where those interactions take place. Since the beginning of March, police officers continue to perform their duties despite public health orders directing most other citizens to stay at home and physically distance. It’s important to acknowledge this and the aggravating effect that this pandemic has had on a profession that is already struggling with mental health and wellness challenges, and the impact on individual police personnel and their families.
I’d now like to take a few minutes to briefly outline some of our key issues from a policing perspective, and then hopefully leave as much time as possible for questions.
First and foremost, one of the main challenges our members have faced is with respect to a general lack of consistency around messages from various levels of government as well as health officials regarding the parameters of general stay-at-home orders. That has led to some confusion and potentially uneven levels of enforcement across the country, which has been frustrating to the public as well as those tasked with enforcement. I believe it’s important to emphasize that while there certainly have been some well-documented cases of potentially overzealous enforcement of quarantine orders, statistics that have now been released show that so far, both police and bylaw enforcement agencies have been successfully using education and encouragement in the overwhelming number of cases.
That being said, I can certainly understand the frustration and even anger that has been expressed by members of the public who have found themselves potentially facing significant fines for infractions that can, in many cases, seem unclear. While I understand that this particular issue involves a number of different provincial as well as municipal orders, I believe there should be a role for the federal government to play in these circumstances, especially with respect to ensuring, as much as possible, consistent and clear messaging with respect to public health orders. Police understand that we have an enforcement role, but messaging regarding our role needs to be clear and consistent from the outset to avoid undermining police legitimacy and public confidence.
Another area where I believe the federal government could play an important role is around the utilization and supply of and the access to personal protective equipment, or PPE, for first responders across the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a patchwork of policies announced by police services regarding when PPE is to be worn by personnel, and even more variation with respect to overall access, particularly for small and medium-sized police services and those policing in rural or remote parts of our country. Again, there is a significant challenge involved, given that, outside of the RCMP, procurement for policing is usually a provincial or municipal issue. I believe these circumstances have highlighted the need for additional coordination, where possible, from the federal government to ensure that at least some minimum standards are achieved.
Further, from an occupational health and safety standpoint, as associations we have noticed a lack of consistency around managing exposure for front-line personnel with a view toward protecting police officers who have heightened risk of exposure as well as their families. Ideally, as a national organization, we believe it would be beneficial for those who are tasked with front-line responsibilities to know that if they are exposed to COVID-19, measures exist to ensure they have access to decontamination facilities, that they are tested as quickly as possible, and if positive, that steps have been taken in advance to make sure they can minimize the chance of further infections for their families and loved ones, including alternate physical accommodation arrangements, if necessary.
These steps should include establishing a presumption that a positive test is work-related to remove any uncertainty or anxiety regarding treatment or income disruption.
One final area of concern I'd like to highlight with regard to the pandemic response is Canada's correctional facilities. There have been calls to expedite certain offenders from the prison system given concerns regarding COVID-19 and the potential for outbreak within these facilities. Obviously, protecting the health of inmates in these facilities must be a key concern for the government and the agencies responsible for maintaining our correctional infrastructure and the health of their personnel.
Our association has significant concerns about the potential consequences of releasing these offenders, particularly given the current circumstances across Canada.
The response to COVID-19 has already placed a significant strain on law enforcement agencies across Canada. Given the current projections around transmission, I believe it is safe to assume that strain will only be aggravated as more front-line personnel are exposed to the virus and are subject to self-isolation measures. The release of a significant cohort of offenders from correctional facilities at a time when our resources are already stretched thin has the potential to add unnecessary stress to an already overburdened system, particularly given that many of the services offenders rely on for monitoring, rehabilitation and reintegration are themselves facing mandatory shutdowns.
To conclude, overall, despite these concerns, I believe the policing response to these pandemic circumstances has been positive. Our members, like all Canadians, recognize the uncertainty this almost unprecedented situation has forced, and despite that, our members will continue to display the professionalism and dedication our communities expect and deserve.
I look forward to your questions. Once again, thank you for giving me the opportunity to appear before your committee today.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, members of the committee and witnesses on the panel. I'm joined by Éric Thibault, who is the national vice president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. We both would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
I'd like to begin by expressing condolences on behalf of UCCO-SACC-CSN to all members of the RCMP family for the tragic loss of Heidi Stevenson. I would also like to send our condolences to all of our members, as we have lost two correctional managers, one from Springhill and one from the Nova Institution. It's absolutely tragic times here in Nova Scotia. I'm talking to you from there today, and we'd like to send our condolences.
I'd like to begin by expressing my pride in representing such an incredible group of professionals, who continue to fulfill their mandate in the face of this invisible threat, COVID-19. Our members, who on a daily basis enter one of the most dangerous workplaces in Canada, bravely continue this work and with an additional personal risk. For that they must be commended.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, UCCO-SACC-CSN, and the correctional officers we represent have only ever asked one thing from this government outside of our negotiations, and that is to have the protections in place to make sure that all the dangers to our health and safety are mitigated to every extent possible. With this threat, UCCO-SACC-CSN has called for added protection in the form of personal protective equipment, virus testing of all front-line workers and involvement in the contingency planning process at the local level and regional and national levels. Contemplating and preparing for what-if scenarios are essentially part of a correctional officer's DNA. Unfortunately this virus has created many of these scenarios, and many questions remain unanswered for the vast majority of our membership.
With regard to personal protective equipment, over one short month there has been a significant shift in culture for mask wearing in our institutions. The beginning of this crisis saw our members threatened with discipline for donning PPE in the form of masks if they did so under their own assessment of risk. There were also work refusals on this issue. Correctional Service Canada's position was that only they could assess the risk, and they were worried that wearing a mask could elicit fear among the inmate population. Now the opposite is true. In just one short month, discipline is now being threatened if a mask is not worn routinely if physical distancing is not an option.
This example may be dramatic; however, it illustrates a complete culture shift over a very short period of time resulting from a continued push from the union to do everything possible to mitigate risk. I simply don't understand how this was not communicated during the whole contingency planning process.
Our conversations around COVID-19 began with the Correctional Service on February 6 during our regular national labour management meeting. On this date, it was communicated to us by the Public Health Agency of Canada that the risk was determined to be low for the coronavirus. Looking back at that particular meeting, I don't believe either side of the table could have predicted how our lives would change within one short month.
On March 9, an initial conversation took place with senior management over some steps that CSC was taking to prepare for the virus as the threat to Canadians was increasing. These initial steps included screening visitors who may have travelled or who otherwise showed symptoms, local contingency planning and inventory for PPE and procurement. Just two days later, the announced budgetary measures for a response to COVID-19 and we began to see restrictions put in some provinces as states of emergency were declared.
The week of March 16, UCCO-SACC-CSN quickly adapted to the reality we are seeing today. We set up regular teleconferences and video conferences to keep the communication open with both CSC and the National Joint Council. Since that day, ongoing and regular discussions about all issues have taken place, as well as countless bilateral telephone calls, to solve issues that seem to crop up daily. In my history as a union leader, I would characterize the past month as unprecedented with respect to the consultation and joint efforts to tackle the common issue of COVID-19.
It was on March 26 that we learned of our first confirmed case of COVID-19. One of our members working at Port-Cartier Institution contracted the virus through community transmission some time between March 9 and March 14 and inadvertently spread the virus while asymptomatic. It was over the next days that we learned first-hand how incredibly viral COVID-19 is, as the number of positive cases grew within only a few days.
During this time there was a significant amount of work done by all parties to reduce further spread. Contingency measures were both developed and put in place. The institution, however, did experience a dramatic staffing issue within hours, as many correctional officers were directed to quarantine as a result of public health advice during the contact tracing investigations.
On April 2, I sent a letter to the public safety minister, , regarding an urgent need to have testing available for correctional officers. Though the advice from public health is sound advice to mitigate spread, sending a significant portion of the front line home to self-isolate has a direct negative impact for all those staff who remain.
Since the federal Emergencies Act has not been declared in force, all parameters around testing for COVID-19 remain under provincial jurisdiction. This has resulted in different responses to our members' eligibility to receive the testing across the country. Affected sites have been forced to find creative solutions through scheduling and voluntary workplace change to simply hold the front line. With a broader scope for testing, members who may be asymptomatic could, in fact, be tested, and if determined negative for the virus, report back to work much sooner than a 14-day quarantine. This remains a significant issue, as we see the virus continue to infiltrate our institutions.
Currently we have four sites experiencing significant staffing difficulties. These sites are the Centre fédéral de formation, Joliette Institution and Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec, as well as Mission Institution in British Columbia. These institutions would greatly benefit from quick and ongoing testing of both inmates and staff.
UCCO-SACC-CSN has continually called on the government and our employer to make testing available for staff, as it's simply not a reality that we can stay home. There must be an exception for federal employees critical to the public service, without the need for the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act.
As we're all aware, the spread of this virus happens when people don't have the ability to distance themselves from one another. Self-isolation has proven to be an issue in some of our facilities. Single occupancy cells, which are equipped with a toilet and running water, allow inmates to easily self-isolate. However, there are many institutions that are designed with a communal living space approach, and they lack proper cells for isolation. The latter designed units are great for rehabilitation and for a sense of community, but they are a detriment in the crisis that we face today. Infrastructure, or a lack thereof, directly impacts a local plan of attack if the virus enters the facility.
There are other challenges as well. Some institutions are in very remote locations. The ability to draw staff from one institution to work in another becomes increasingly difficult when they are secluded institutions such as Port-Cartier or Grande Cache. These are challenges that become unique, and they must be thought about when building contingencies.
It's commendable that our government has essentially handed the reins of this crisis to the scientists and public health officials. In a crisis such as this, it becomes very clear that the government's role has seemed to shift from a legislative body to a support mechanism for decisions made by Canada's health professionals and scientists. In any crisis, trust should always be put in the hands of the professionals.
That said, while we have found that CSC has generally heeded the advice of public health, they have also, at times, ignored that advice due to staffing issues or issues around potential overtime costs. We have had members who were told to return to work after exposure and testing but before the results were back, and that places staff and other inmates at risk.
Again, had consultations and contingencies been thoroughly examined at the onset of this virus, we would likely not be in this position today. Had CSC listened to their front-line staff, had the government heard our plea for easier testing, we may not be in the dire situation we find ourselves in today at some institutions in this country.
In conclusion, it's important to say that the world was not ready for this pandemic. Hindsight is always perfect. However, had proper steps been taken when the seriousness of this virus started to be widely known, many of our institutions would have been much more prepared. The deadly virus requires a proactive and strong response. A response that is reactive and slow to adjust only places staff, inmates and the general public at further risk.
I thank you and welcome any questions the committee has.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the Standing Committee on Health, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I'm pleased to brief you on the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness's role in the Canadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
My name is Patrick Tanguy. I'm the senior assistant deputy minister of the emergency management and programs branch at Public Safety Canada.
As we're all aware, much has changed since I last appeared before this committee on February 3, 2020. The international and domestic impacts of COVID-19 have affected all aspects of our lives and all sectors of society in communities large and small across our country. These impacts have been especially felt by the public safety sector, including the workers and volunteers involved in emergency response and the people who work to maintain the safety of our communities as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.
Before I begin, I'd like to recognize the hard work of first responders and public safety officers and volunteers in supporting Canada's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while their own personal and professional lives have been impacted. This includes the organizations represented at today's meeting, but also many others too numerous to list.
I'd like to begin by reminding the committee of Public Safety Canada's role in emergency management. As set out in the Emergency Management Act, the department plays a key role in coordinating emergency management activities among federal government institutions and other entities, such as provinces and territories.
The government operations centre, which is a whole-of-government asset housed in my department, is the main platform that we use for carrying out these activities. As outlined under the federal emergency response plan, the government operations centre supports response capacity and coordination during events of national interest, such the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government operations centre brings all partners in an event response together into a common environment to harmonize collective actions and abilities into efficient analysis and action. The government operations centre also interacts on a daily basis with the provincial and territorial emergency operations centres and coordinates official requests for assistance that could come from federal departments and agencies and from provinces and territories.
In addition to the role of the government operations centre, Public Safety Canada's communications directorate provides leadership in whole-of-government communications on the event by coordinating with other federal departments to develop effective key messaging for the Government of Canada to ensure calm and instill confidence in Canadians.
I'd like to re-emphasize that my department exercises its leadership in emergency management in close co-operation with its provincial and territorial counterparts. This is accomplished through various federal-provincial-territorial tables, at the ministerial, deputy ministerial and assistant deputy ministerial levels. This includes the federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for emergency management and senior officials responsible for emergency management.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, these tables have been meeting multiple times a week to remain apprised of current priorities, potential gaps and any requests for assistance that we may receive. Over the past few weeks, my department has engaged these tables on issues such as emergency management capacity in remote and isolated northern communities, essential services, and other health matters.
Under the Emergency Management Act, my department is also responsible for leading the national effort to strengthen the resilience of critical infrastructure. We do this in close collaboration with lead federal departments responsible for each of Canada's ten critical infrastructure sectors and with the private sector.
The national cross sector forum is the primary mechanism for government to engage national leaders from each of Canada's ten critical infrastructure sectors on the COVID-19 response. The national cross sector forum has been meeting weekly to provide critical infrastructure leaders with updates on health, given by our colleagues at the Public Health Agency of Canada, and on the federal government's planning efforts.
As you know, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are wide-ranging and affect multiple federal organizations and their partners. Given the number of actors and issues involved, coordination is key for ensuring a coherent whole-of-government response. We've taken a number of steps to bolster the government operations centre's capacity to coordinate the collective federal response to this emergency.
To promote greater collaboration and information sharing among the various implicated parties, we've embedded subject matter experts from a number of lead federal departments into the government operations centre. This includes Indigenous Services Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces. We've also embedded experts in critical infrastructure protection into the government operations centre to support greater collaboration with the private sector.
Lastly, we've embedded representatives from the Canadian Red Cross to support greater information sharing with civil society organizations, recognizing that there are many playing an important role. Using this enhanced capacity, we've created a dedicated situational awareness team within the government operations centre. This team is producing daily situational awareness products to inform our response.
In addition to supporting enhanced situational awareness, the government operations centre is also using its bolstered capacity to support federal planning. The centre has been working with multiple partners to develop the government's response plan. The objective of the plan is to identify the overarching roles and responsibilities and key activities of each federal department to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. This plan provides clarity on a number of cross-cutting issues, such as critical infrastructure, public health measures, business continuity planning and other issues. Provinces, territories, the private sector and the Canadian Red Cross have also been engaged in the development of this plan.
As I said, critical infrastructure protection is a key part of my department's response to the pandemic. My department is also working to help our external partners, including provinces, territories and municipalities, support the resilience of critical infrastructure systems. Our focus here is on protecting the assets, systems, networks and services essential to the health, safety and economic well-being of Canadians. A failure in any of these systems can have cascading effects on other sectors, which can amplify the economic, social and safety impacts on Canadians.
As you know, a number of jurisdictions within Canada have announced that business closures and border measures are in effect. Provincial and territorial announcements have highlighted that only organizations necessary to provide essential services are permitted to operate. Earlier this month, my department released a document entitled “Guidance on Essential Services and Functions in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic” to provide clear advice when it comes to determining the essential services and functions in the context of the pandemic.
I'd like to conclude by highlighting some areas that we'll be focusing on in our emergency collaboration moving forward. First and foremost, we'll continue to work with our partners to address the challenge presented by cyclical events. We're dealing with the response to COVID-19, but we must also be able to meet needs in the event of a flood or forest fire. Resources and personnel required for a response may already be deployed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We'll need to work closely with partners to properly coordinate a response to events such as floods.
We're working with our partners to support the long-term mental well-being of front-line workers, including public safety personnel.
Again, Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to provide some input. I look forward to answering your questions.
Mr. Chair, thank you very much for the opportunity to appear today before the committee. I too would like to take a moment to express our condolences for the loss. Colleagues, our thoughts are with you.
As you know, our top priority at public health is the health and safety of Canadians. The Public Health Agency of Canada is actively monitoring and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and planning for possible scenarios based on the evidence and as the science continues to emerge. Since the outset, PHAC and our provincial and territorial public health authorities across the country have been working together to ensure our preparedness and response measures are appropriate and adaptable, based on the latest science and evolving situation.
Within the agency, PHAC has activated its health portfolio operations centre to ensure effective planning and coordination of response efforts, in collaboration with international, federal, provincial and territorial partners. You have heard from many people from the public health agencies since the outset. Today I and my colleague, Cindy Evans, who's the acting vice-president in emergency management and is on a different side of the organization, are here, and I understand that you've invited us specifically to provide an overview of Canada's national emergency strategic stockpile, our inventory management and the disposal of medical masks and gloves.
I would like to talk about the NESS, as we call it, the national emergency strategic stockpile, but first we must understand the situation.
As you know, public health is a shared responsibility among federal, provincial, territorial and local governments. A fundamental assumption underpinning any emergency management is that the provinces and territories and the local governments are prepared to a reasonable extent for the most common emergencies.
The NESS is the federal government's health emergency stockpile. Our role in the stockpile is twofold. One is to provide surge capacity to provinces and territories at their request when their own resources are not sufficient. The other is that the NESS is the sole provider of certain assets required for rare public health emergencies—for example, costly or rarely used vaccines or antidotes.
To understand the NESS as it is today, it is helpful to understand its history and how it has evolved. It was created in 1952 during the early years of the Cold War. At the time, the biggest threat to national health and safety was the threat of nuclear attack. The NESS was authorized to stockpile essential health supplies for civil defence purposes. During the 1960s, the inventory expanded to include 200-bed hospitals, treatment centres, basic laboratories and blood donation units. Many of these were pre-positioned across Canada in schools, church basements, community centres and other locations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the scope of the NESS expanded to include the capacity to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies by stockpiling the supplies needed to support evacuations and to care for displaced individuals, such as kits for setting up reception centres, mobile kitchens and airport disaster units.
The turn of the century marked a dramatic change in the nature of the international security and public health threats, marked by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic.
During this period, the NESS evolved to focus more on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. It began to move away from beds and blankets and increased its holdings of antiviral medications, a key treatment in response to viral outbreaks such as influenza. The role of the NESS in procurement also evolved as a potential collaborative sourcing organization and a clearing house, paving the way for possible bulk procurement.
There have been ongoing changes and modernization to the NESS as an important part of the emergency management and preparedness response. In 2012, the NESS contained valuable medical and pandemic response supplies, but it also had outdated field hospitals and supplies that were no longer viable. Assets were held in various locations across nine cities and in approximately 1,000 pre-positioned sites in the provinces and territories, including within schools and community centres. Many of the sites had been moved or closed, so some of the assets were no longer in good quality due to long-term storage.
An independent assessment of the federal warehouse network looked at the footprint and found it was too large. The recommendation was to move from nine warehouse locations to six, as that would be more efficient and provide the same response capacity. We began to implement that solution. As a part of that, items of value were repositioned and other obsolete assets were disposed of in accordance with Treasury Board directives on disposal of surplus material.
In terms of inventory management, the NESS reviews its stock of equipment regularly. As part of the review, expired material is disposed of. In response to your specific question, in 2019, for example, approximately two million expired masks and 440,000 expired gloves were disposed of during the closure of one of the warehouses in Regina. The masks and gloves had been purchased in 2009. They passed the manufacturer's recommended limit of five years for their use.
The Public Health Agency follows strict guidelines when deploying materials. If the agency cannot account for the quality of the material, it will not deploy it. Even under current circumstances, where guidance allows for use of some expired personal protective equipment, we examine very closely any equipment that is sent over and is five years old or more. This is in accordance with manufacturers' guidelines.
When disposing of surplus assets, we offer them to partners, we sell them through GCSurplus and we recycle where we can. As a last resort, sometimes we do need to dispose of obsolete, expired or unusable assets.
It is important to note that when we have stockpiles that are about to expire, we do consider whether they can be donated for suitable use, but there are parameters around donations. For example, the World Health Organization will accept donated PPE, but the equipment must still be two years before its expiry date. That would meant that if we had something in stock for three years, we would have to donate it and rotate the stock.
When it comes to replenishing our assets, we do it based on risk and threat assessments, and credible scenarios that outline the types of risks that we face and may need to respond to. Our decisions to purchase assets focus on low-probability, high-impact events for which it makes the most sense for the federal government to be the sole provider. We have a planned and very nominal budget of about $2 million a year.
In summary, the NESS complements provincial, territorial and local capacity. We prepare for low-probability, high-impact events—for example, a terrorist attack or a major natural disaster—and we arrange for the continued availability of pharmaceuticals, equipment and medical supplies that are rare and difficult to obtain in a short time frame. We also fill a niche role in terms of stockpiling certain high-value items, such as the smallpox vaccine. The NESS really is intended to provide surge capacity, and it maintains its ability to facilitate bulk procurement with provinces and territories.
In order to respond to the unprecedented challenges of this pandemic, the NESS has been mobilized to support response efforts. We are leveraging bulk procurement capacity working with provinces, territories, Public Services and Procurement Canada and Health Canada to procure supplies for front-line health care workers. We have worked closely with the provinces and territories, Public Services and Procurement Canada and Health Canada to make these purchases and to allocate donations.
We've also ramped up our internal capacity with dedicated units for procuring PPE, identifying appropriate PPE for health service providers, preparing requisitions, reviewing product specifications and testing products. We've also deployed NESS equipment and supplies in response to requests for assistance from provinces and territories.
We have engaged the Canadian Armed Forces to facilitate logistics. This is making a huge difference. We went from about 15 to 30 deployments a year to 15 to 30 deployments a month. The volume is much bigger than anything we've been prepared for. The Canadian Armed Forces are working around the clock. Over two dozen members provide air and ground logistics and support for the global movement of these goods.
We also entered into an agreement with Amazon Canada, which leverages Canada Post and Purolator to facilitate the distribution of PPE and supplies purchased by the government. Since April 1, we've shipped approximately 1.2 million N95 respirator masks, six million surgical masks and eight million nitrile gloves to provinces and territories. More are expected to arrive and be distributed in the coming days.
The NESS has a long history. It has moved from a wartime stockpile to a more modern inventory of niche assets for low-probability, high-impact events. This pandemic has really been an opportunity for us to mobilize bulk procurement, large-scale shipping, and product verification and testing, and we've been mobilized in an unprecedented fashion. Responding to the events necessitated new and innovative partnerships and non-traditional approaches, all of which will inform the future of the NESS.
Mr. Chair, we thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to provide an overview of the national emergency strategic stockpile. We would be pleased to answer your questions.
First I'll address the question about personal protective equipment.
We have not been given any indication by Correctional Services that there is a lack of personal protective equipment. Our questions are often about where it is going to be used.
When I spoke about the planning in my opening comments and the contingencies in all of these things that need to be discussed at the local level, those have to do with what's going to happen when the virus comes. When I talked about the personal protective equipment, it's about when you use it. It's only now that the levels of PPE that are required in certain situations are coming down to the field through our health and safety committees. If we have an inmate who has tested positive for COVID or is symptomatic for COVID, of course the response to coming into contact with that inmate is far different from what it is when we are able to keep a social distance. I can tell you that an inadequate stock of personal protective equipment has not been flagged to us; our question is about where it's used.
When it comes to the testing, we know that the 188 tests, as you say, for those institutions alone are of course for those inmates who are symptomatic or are expressing symptoms.
In my opening comments I referred to testing being a priority. What I meant by that is that public health comes into the institution when somebody tests positive for COVID. They do contact tracing, and those officers who might have been around an inmate or another staff member are told to go home and self-isolate for 14 days. They're asymptomatic, so they're not able to get a test in the province where they live because they don't have any symptoms, but they have to stay at home for 14 days.
The problem we are having, and what blew up very rapidly first at Port-Cartier Institution, was that a significant majority of our staff members were sent home to self-isolate. Then the members are forced to create different schedules and work excessive hours just to keep the front line strong. Of course testing is an important piece for the inmate population, but it's also important for correctional officers when they're sent home.
Thank you to all the witnesses for being here.
Mr. Stamatakis, my first question is for you.
I live in Vancouver, where you have had a long and great career with the Vancouver Police Department. I reached out to some of your members in advance of this meeting and asked what their challenges and concerns were. I want to read to you one response I got.
The VPD officer said, “Most of my challenges and concerns are mostly answered with 'Just wear PPE' and 'You're going to get it eventually.' The reality of working on the front line is I'm not able to avoid high-risk interactions when it comes to COVID, and I feel like it's just assumed by the government that we will get it and to suck it up. I personally don't disagree with that assertion, but I know it makes lots of my co-workers, who have elderly relatives at home, much more nervous. Numerous times, I've had to deal with situations without PPE, as without my immediate intervention there could have been bodily harm or more. The current answer to that, afterwards, is 'Keep coming back to work until you show symptoms.' Couple that with constantly having to attend SROs at an increasing rate, working in close contact with people who have drug and mental issues that make even basic hygiene out of the question, and sharing all of my equipment—there is no end.”
Mr. Stamatakis, given jurisdictions like New York City, where 4,000 members of the NYPD have tested positive for COVID-19 and about 15% of the uniformed workforce is out sick, do you have any similar concerns with respect to your membership?
Thank you for the question.
That's why, in my opening remarks, I tried to emphasize that one of the challenges of policing in this very unprecedented environment is exactly what that officer you were in contact with described to you. We often don't know whom we're dealing with, and we have little control over the environment within which we're interacting with people. These are very real concerns. That's why the level of anxiety for police personnel through this pandemic has been so heightened.
We try to put protocols in place to mitigate the risk as much as possible, whether that's through the issuing of PPE or changing how we respond to different calls, minimizing the number of times that we might be interacting with the public, where maybe we would normally interact with them in normal circumstances but now we don't, because we want to try to prevent police officers from being exposed. It's a very real issue, and I think the approach we've taken is to try to raise issues when they come up. I think the approach we're taking now is to try to identify some of the concerns we've had to try to look prospectively at how we can address these in the future as this thing continues.
To that end, I've had good lines of communication with and Public Safety Canada officials, who have been responsive to some of the issues that we've raised. However, it is an unprecedented situation, and what that officer describes is what officers are experiencing right across the country.
We're fortunate in Canada that we've had few officers.... We've had officers in almost every jurisdiction test positive, but they haven't been significant numbers. Where we've been more challenged is with officers who have been exposed and then have to self-isolate, and then we have to manage the deployment issues that arise from that. We manage that through—and I alluded to this in my opening remarks—the need for testing and easy access to medical professionals who can give our members good advice. For the most part, in most jurisdictions, we do have access to advice from medical professionals, which we're trying to take advantage of.
Thank you very much for that question.
There are really three areas.
In terms of the partnerships, I would like to see a strong, sustained relationship with the Canadian Red Cross. They have been invaluable in providing services at a community level and helping outreach. They have an understanding of what happens on the ground and an awareness that bridges the public health element with some of the other concerns regarding our vulnerable communities and the issues they're facing and how best to address them.
While we are dealing largely with a public issue, it is making even more difficult the issues that vulnerable people in communities are facing. Organizations such as the Red Cross have real value there. To see them in some sort of more formalized working arrangement would be incredibly valuable.
We have had phenomenal collaborative relationships with our provinces and territories. I have never seen organizations come together so quickly, so thoroughly and so openly. On the health front, that has been a real bonus. It does reflect years of planning. This is not something that just happened because of this pandemic; it's happened since SARS. We've been doing a lot of pandemic planning and a lot preparedness work with them. I do think that we do need to actually have broader exercises to understand the implications of public health on other areas of the economy, so not quite as insular as just public health but leveraging that approach, that collaboration, those types of exercises and taking them broader, engaging more in terms of the groups that Patrick Tanguy is working with in that area.
The third thing as we look to the future is to understand the implications of a public health event such as this on national security. We tend to deal with public health as something off to the side. We are now seeing the impacts of this not just on people but also on supply chains, on our ability to bring food across the border, on agriculture and on every aspect of the economy.
I do think something that has come out very strong is the recent call to action. While I'm dealing with procurement, with suppliers that may exist, there's been a call to action to the private sector, to private businesses to actually build capacity in Canada to deal with public health requirements for PPE. We have to understand that's something we have to sustain and build into a broader, longer-term strategy as we move forward.