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“We found that information needed to govern, oversee and manage the federal stockpile was missing, outdated or lacked clarity.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.

To avoid a repeat of these inventory issues, the AG has recommended the health agency develop a “comprehensive management plan” for the NESS with a clear timeline for completion.

PHAC said today it accepts the AG’s findings and promised to have such a plan in place “within one year of the end of the pandemic.”

While she identified major shortcomings, the AG also found that once the severity of the pandemic was better understood, PHAC, 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.”

Starting in May 2020, the agency moved from “reactive management” to “informed planning and allocation,” which resulted in better service for the provinces and territories, said Hogan.

To address shortages, Public Services and Procurement Canada took a risk by pre-paying for some orders even when they couldn’t be sure a supplier would deliver.

Hogan said this aggressive approach helped the federal government secure much-needed equipment at a time of unprecedented demand. The AG found the department “awarded contracts relatively quickly,” given the complexity of the procurement process in the context of a global pandemic.

Hogan said Health Canada also adjusted its policies to better assess what the provinces needed, allocated the equipment well and moved to quickly license new suppliers.

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