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A penny for your pandemic efforts? Ottawa approved $120K for coins for health staff

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The federal agency charged with spearheading Canada’s response to COVID-19 approved a $120,000 initiative to purchase specially designed coins for its employees as an “everlasting expression of gratitude” for their work during the pandemic.

The coins were to be distributed to all employees of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) as a token of thanks for their work at the agency over the last three years, according to documents obtained by Global News through access-to-information law.

The gesture was given an approximate price tag of up to $120,000 after an estimate for the coins was obtained by PHAC. This price included a brass nickel-plated coin and a blue velvet presentation box for each coin at a cost of $16 per employee.

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“Since 2020, PHAC employees have made exceptional contributions to pandemic relief efforts, performing their duties efficiently and effectively under challenging circumstances, while upholding the core values of Canada’s public service,” says a briefing document prepared for PHAC’s president, Harpreet S. Kochhar, in June 2022.

The “COVID coin” initiative and its price tag were approved by Kochhar on June 6, 2022.

The planned design of the coin showed English on one side and French on the other, with what the agency termed a “universally-recognized COVID-19 symbol” — the spiked ball image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it appears microscopically.

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At the time the briefing document was prepared, it was anticipated the COVID coins would be announced at a special October 2022 town hall for PHAC employees and distributed shortly thereafter.

The coins were to be delivered to employees “as an everlasting expression of gratitude for their contributions under unprecedented circumstances.”

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In a statement to Global News, the agency noted that it is a tradition in many organizations, including emergency services and mission-focused organizations, both inside and outside the civil service, to present a commemorative coin or token to employees who have participated in a significant operation or event as a way of marking their contribution.

“In this case, eligible Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) employees will receive a COVID-19 Commemorative Coin to recognize PHAC’s exceptional contribution to Canada’s COVID-19 response,” said Anne Genier, senior media relations adviser for PHAC and Health Canada.

And while the approved cost estimate came in at a higher amount, Genier says PHAC has only spent just over $31,000 on the initiative to date.

It is anticipated 7,500 employees will receive one of these COVID coins, she added.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in Canada, the agency’s size has almost doubled to 4,368 full-time equivalents by the end of 2021-22 from 2,296 full-time employee equivalents in 2019-20, according to PHAC’s most recently available departmental results report.

The increase in staffing was mainly due to temporary and permanent new staffing needed to support the agency’s work as it implemented numerous initiatives in support of COVID-19 public health measures, according to the report.

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It added that the agency anticipated the number of its full-time equivalent employees would gradually return to near pre-pandemic levels starting in 2023-24 as COVID-19 funding decreased over time.

Work of PHAC employees during the pandemic has included drafting new legislation, policies, directives and guidelines; deploying emergency response resources across the country; contact tracing; advancing research on COVID-19; developing new technologies for testing and tracking potential cases; issuing frequent and timely communication; supporting ground and air control measures and maintaining other, regular public health services to Canadians, the briefing documents state.

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