Federal COVID-19 briefings stopped during election, sources say. Experts concerned

Click to play video: 'Canada election: Where are PHAC updates during election campaign?'
Canada election: Where are PHAC updates during election campaign?
WATCH ABOVE: With COVID-19 cases rising in Canada there was yet again no briefing from the Canada Public Health Agency. Since the federal election was called there hasn’t been a peep on camera from Canada’s top doctors. Global News has been pushing for answers and out Abigail Bimman is on the campaign trail with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and asked him why this is no longer happening especially with cases increasing in the fourth wave – Aug 25, 2021

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) hasn’t held a single COVID-19 briefing since the announcement of the federal election on Aug. 15 and doesn’t plan to provide any more in-person health updates until it’s over, Global News has learned.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, PHAC had been providing at least weekly updates in person on the progress of the coronavirus and the country’s response in dealing with it.

However, shortly before the election was confirmed, PHAC turned to news releases once a week instead of live briefings. And, it plans on continuing with that approach unless anything changes — at least until the election is over — sources have confirmed to Global News. The sources added that there is always the possibility this could change.

The last full modelling update on COVID-19 from the federal government was on July 30.

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Click to play video: 'PHAC releases guidance on what Canadians can and cannot do as more people become fully immunized'
PHAC releases guidance on what Canadians can and cannot do as more people become fully immunized

The approach has left several experts deeply concerned, disappointed and has led them to question the political nature of the decision.

“Daily in-person updates are really important,” Jessica Mudry, chair of the School of Professional Communication, Ryerson University said in an interview with Global News Wednesday. “The Public Health Agency of Canada shouldn’t be talking about politics. They should be talking about public health.”

According to Mudry, in-person updates are important not just from an informational standpoint but also from a connection standpoint. The daily briefings help create “a level of confidence” in people and guide them to act accordingly on “doing the right thing in a public crisis,” she said.

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“[Health updates] also allow a certain amount of interactivity, I think, that is lost when you have an almost like a one-directional, you know, unidirectional missive on a piece of paper.”

“It’s one thing to go online and learn about what’s going on, and it’s another thing to hear an esteemed member of the government who has scientific training and works from a position of evidence-based medicine to make announcements and projections or make suggestions about how you should be conducting your life on any given day around COVID-19,” she added.

Click to play video: 'Singh criticizes Trudeau after federal COVID-19 briefings halted during election'
Singh criticizes Trudeau after federal COVID-19 briefings halted during election

Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director for Ontario’s COVID-19 science table, echoed Mudry’s reaction.

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“I do not think we should compromise now for any political considerations,” Dr. Juni told Global News on Wednesday.

“We can’t just stop with messaging, because the challenges [of the pandemic] continue,” he said. “I believe we need to absolutely keep the population aboard so that people really just see in a tangible manner what’s actually happening.”

He stressed the need to continue giving out information on the coronavirus and the country’s progress in the form of messages “that are actually directly provided by other fellow human beings.”

“We relate to people not just to data. Data will be important, but it’s clear that the way we are all built, we actually just want to hear this directly from the horse’s mouth,” Dr. Juni said.

When asked about the next in-person public health update from feds, PHAC told Global News that the agency continues “to closely monitor COVID-19 activity in Canada,” and an update on COVID-19 modelling “will be included in the Chief Public Health Officer’s [CPHO] written statement on September 3, 2021.”
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“Canadians can expect information to continue to be shared,” a spokesperson from PHAC told Global News Wednesday.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s 44th federal election begins during 4th COVID-19 wave'
Canada’s 44th federal election begins during 4th COVID-19 wave

“As Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Tam is continuing her weekly CPHO weekly statement, to be issued on Fridays,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, Dr. Tam continues to use social media to provide regular information on developments and advice.”

However, when asked if PHAC had been directed by PMO to hold back the in-person briefings until after the election, the spokesperson said that the “decision on how to communicate with Canadians is entirely within her [CPHO’s] purview.”
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“CPHO will not hesitate to provide additional communication to Canadians,” the spokesperson said.

When asked on Wednesday about the lack of daily public health briefings and the cost of it on Canadian lives, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did not directly answer Global News’ question.

“Public Health Canada continues its excellent work, and partners across the provinces are doing things to make sure the Canadians stay safe,” Trudeau told reporters while campaigning in B.C.

He also mentioned that PHAC “makes its decisions about how to best communicate in various situations with Canadians,” and that they will continue to ensure that Canadians are getting “the information they need to stay safe.”

“We’ve seen public health officials across this country, in various provinces are taking further measures to minimize the impact of this wave of the unvaccinated, we’re seeing right now. But the bottom line is — the way to get through this is — to make sure everyone gets vaccinated,” he said.

Opposition party leaders criticized Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau on Wednesday over the lack of public communication during the ongoing fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh slammed the federal government for this “bad decision” and called out Trudeau for walking away from his commitment to not have an election while the country was reeling under a pandemic.

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“We’re still dealing with this pandemic, still dealing with the crisis, and we’re not able to get [health] briefings of that nature because we’re in a caretaker mode,” Singh said.

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole also lashed out at Trudeau for prioritizing his own interests over the well-being of Canadians.

“We are in a fourth wave,” O’Toole said. “We are only in an election because Mr. Trudeau is putting his political interests ahead of the national interest.”

“He [Trudeau] should be transparent with respect to the decisions he took in deciding to cost this election.”

“It’s unacceptable,” he said.

Global News reached out to the Green Party for their take on the lack of live public health briefings but did not hear back at the time of publication.

Click to play video: 'Experts say action needed to keep COVID-19 4th wave under control'
Experts say action needed to keep COVID-19 4th wave under control

Mudry also put to question the aftermath of such political decisions on the health and well-being of Canadians.

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“There has been a lot of politicking around this and it is always to the detriment of the public health of Canadians when that happens,” she said.

“We’ve been conditioned to — over the last couple of years — to have a channel in our brains waiting to receive information about what we should do in the best interest of the public health of all Canadians. And to deny us that, you know, to turn that channel off and just to assume that we’re going to then seek out the information in a paper released is very disappointing.”

“If we allow a federal election to derail that job [of PHAC], right, that explicit role that they play, then to me, I start to question how much politics is playing into these releases, the timing of these releases,” Mudry said.

Juni too cautioned about the impacts this federal election might have on public health.

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“The problem is we’re all done with the pandemic but the pandemic is not done with us and we can’t just stop because of an election.”

“[Ontario is] currently at 660 cases and the doubling time is about three weeks, meaning roughly three weeks from now we will probably be around 1,300 cases,” he said. “We need to be aware of that. As long as we are in exponential growth, this continues to be self-accelerating. And we just need to be clear that there will be a moment when we need to do something to avoid the health-care system, again, from being overwhelmed.”

— With files from Abigail Bimman and Bryan Mullan 

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