Isolation an advantage
In the past our isolation has been perceived as a disadvantage. This is no longer the case, when it comes to the pandemic. As we face this most serious threat to our safety and security we are able to turn our isolation into an advantage. We can be “masters of our fate”. It is not too late but we could and should have acted sooner. We can and must get it right. It is a matter of survival.
The coronavirus is the biggest threat to our province and its people today. The Director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Robert Redfield, recently said the US would experience a second wave in the fall. We, in this province, should be able to keep it at bay and avoid a second wave. Fortunately, it is something over which we can exercise some control but only if the public is fully engaged, both individually and collectively, through our provincial government.
We must take full advantage of our isolation and use it to protect us. The virus did not come on the wind. It was brought to us by people arriving by air, by sea and by land. Through physical distancing and enhanced testing we can avoid a second wave. We can be the “masters of our fate” if we act wisely and quickly. We are encouraged by the seven consecutive days last week when no new cases were diagnosed.
Stronger Controls at all Points of Entry
We need strong controls at our points of entry. The controls implemented on March 18, 2020, when a public health emergency was declared, were not sufficiently tight or robust. In his blog post of April 6, Ron Penney pointed out:
“I had understood that returning passengers from either the rest of Canada or outside Canada were to be given a mandatory self-isolation order and their contact information recorded, so random monitoring could encourage adherence.
“I now learn from returning passengers I know, that this is not the case. What is happening in St. John’s is that returning passengers are offered a brochure and no contact information is taken. This is a farce.”
Ron Penney and I reached out to confirm that the lack of controls at Torbay Airport is replicated at Port Aux Basques and other points of entry. Passengers arriving both at airports and at North Sydney are given a three page form. The first two pages provide information on the coronavirus, while the final page is a declaration form. The declaration form was not being collected upon arrival at Port Aux Basques. It was “optional” whether an email address or cell phone number was provided. No contact information was being recorded at the points of entry! To my knowledge there was no enforcement unless a complaint was registered.
Flights are Petri Dishes for the Virus
Passengers arriving by air reported that there was no physical distancing on the flights. As Ron Penney describes it “those flights are petri dishes for the virus”. The declaration form was not given to passengers during the flight, as should have been done. Contact information was not being kept and no self-isolation plan was required.
At Torbay, airport passengers could easily bypass the kiosk staffed by provincial staff. Arriving passengers were free to hail taxis and infect both the car and driver. They were free to travel to their homes and to infect other family members and other occupants. There was no attempt to do temperature testing.
All arriving passengers should be given an Order while travelling and the officials manning the kiosk should obtain contact information and review isolation and transportation plans for these passengers. The passengers should not be allowed to use public transport, such as taxis, until they have been tested negative. Nor should arriving passengers be allowed to come into contact with other citizens, including immediate family members, before quarantine and testing
Correspondence with Government
I wrote to the Deputy Minister of Health and Community Services on April 4, 2020. This is what I said:
“I understand from reliable sources that people arriving at Torbay airport are bypassing the desk set up to register them for quarantine. People are arriving and going home without being registered and without leaving contact information. Can you confirm that each person is required to register and to provide their name and contact information? Can you confirm that they are given a legally binding order to quarantine, along with the steps they must follow to isolate and to report to authorities? Can you advise what surveillance system is in place to police compliance with prescribed regulations?
“What controls are in place in Port Aux Basques to ensure compliance with regulations which demand that people isolate themselves?”
On April 21, 2020 the Leader of the Opposition issued a statement in which he called upon the Liberal government to intervene to toughen up screening measures at airports in the province.
New Special Measures Order (Amendment No. 6)
On Friday April 24, 2020 the province announced Special Measures Order (amendment number 6), which may have been influenced by the questions raised by Ron Penney, the Leader of the Opposition and yours truly. The key provisions are as follows:
This represents progress toward a tighter and more robust system. It places the onus on arriving passengers to complete a declaration form and to submit it to provincial officials. It requires that arriving passengers provide specifics of a self-isolation plan. But it leaves a number of outstanding issues, including questions of enforcement.
It is not clear if the arriving passengers can continue to travel to their homes by taxi and potentially to infect the car and the taxi driver. Can provincial officials substitute a more effective isolation and transportation plan if the plan submitted is not adequate, for example in protecting family members, taxi drivers and other people with whom the passengers come in contact. Despite the Premier’s reference to the deployment of “police cadets” it is not clear if strict enforcement will replace the prior reliance upon third party complaints to achieve compliance.
Importation from Known Industrial Sites
On April 23 I wrote to the Chief Medical Health Officer expressing concern about arriving passengers from infected industrial sites outside the province, including Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake Oil Sands site, at which infections have been disclosed.
Unfortunately, the new Order will not require testing of all arriving passengers from infected sites but only those with symptoms. Many people do not show symptoms but yet they are contagious. If we are to be protected we must apply all the rules to people with symptoms and those without. The Order is silent on whether temperatures will be taken or whether any controls will be applied for safe physical distancing on the flight itself.
Physical distancing must be practiced in the air and on the ground. While lining up, all passengers should be two meters apart at all times. A nearby isolation facility will be necessary to quarantine, at least until test results are available, and individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms must be isolated and tested. People coming from known infected sites must be temperature tested and provided with covid-19 tests, whether symptomatic or not.
Yes, Citizens Can Make A Difference
In the midst of the dark night of the pandemic this post relates a good news story. It is a story about how concerned citizens can make a difference, working as an effective team and reaching out to others. Ron Penney and I learned about the serious weaknesses in the province’s controls over its points of entry about a month ago. We learned from a mutual friend that people were arriving at Torbay airport and could easily bypass the control system and were not required to provide contact information. We decided we would, as concerned citizens, do whatever was in our power to seal the breach in our dyke, which appeared to be more like a sieve rather than a protective “bubble”.
Our mutual friend had contacted Ron and me to inform us of two people who witnessed these weaknesses in the system upon their arrival at Torbay Airport from the United States. We learned there was no enforcement, other than by third party complaints, and we know of no such complaints. Our efforts over the month yielded some positive results, namely an Order to tighten up the controls. After some resistance, action was taken, and we will soon learn whether the new Order effectively repairs the weaknesses which we identified. We will probably never know if our intervention had any influence. I certainly do not expect government to make any public acknowledgement of our efforts.
The chronology of events below relates some of the steps taken to confirm the reports we had heard and to seek changes in the Order issued by the Chief Medical Health Officer. We began by finding people who could tell us what happened when they arrived at Torbay and at Port Aux Basques, around the end of March and early April. We then looked at practices in other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia and New Zealand, both of which had more robust systems in place than those in our province.
We contacted media and asked that questions be raised at the daily press conferences. The chronology below records interviews arranged through the courtesy of VOCM and NTV which provided an opportunity to inform the public.
Apart from government officials, I made contact with a dozen friends to seek information and guidance on the issue. They were all very helpful and all understood that ineffective control over infected travellers is a serious threat to the safety of all of us. Ron and I corresponded with a number of public officials to seek remedial action, including the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the New Democratic Party, the Minister of Health and Community Services, the Chief Medical Health Officer, as well as four senior public servants, at the Deputy and Assistant Deputy Minister level. In response, we received correspondence from the Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs and Environment and from the Clerk of the Executive Council. As a former Clerk I was encouraged to hear from my successor on April 20 that “We share your concerns and are making every effort to implement the strongest measures available…”
It was also encouraging to hear early on from the Leader of the Opposition that he, too, shared our concerns and would take a proactive role. His appearance on CBC’s On the Go program on April 21 was helpful, as was his press release.
Our representations yielded progress in tightening up the system and demonstrated a willingness to listen and to make changes. As described above, the new Order leaves some questions unanswered and hopefully they will soon be addressed, with further interventions by concerned citizens.
✔ Yes, concerned citizens can make a difference but they have to be persistent.
✔ The system is lethargic and resistant to change. There is a patronizing “we know best” attitude that can be off-putting for all but the most persistent.
✔ It took a full month, far too long, for these changes to be made, given that three of our fellow citizens have died since the Public Health Emergency was declared and
weaknesses must be addressed urgently.
✔ Public engagement is the mantra with government today but they do it poorly. The
resources allocated to “communications” have ballooned over the past 20 years but it is all about making the politicians look good. Sad to say, public servants are valued by
how well they serve the politicians at the centre of government and not by how well
they serve ordinary citizens.
✔ They need to empower citizens by proactively creating venues to encourage citizen participation, drawing upon advice proffered by Edsel Bonnell (e.g., “Involve the People in the Process” June 18, 2016) and yours truly in my letter to the Premier of March 25, 2020 which set our mechanisms both to inform the public and to seek advice from citizens. On March 25 I wrote to the Premier with 12 key recommendations, many of which echoed the views of Dr. Bonnell on citizen engagement and empowerment, with no response to date.
✔There is little evidence of government reaching out to the community for advice, save for the engagement of Dr. Proton Rahman of Memorial University, in preparing a model and projections of the impact of the pandemic. This is regrettable.
✔Perhaps the University has a role to play by creating a public interest blog through which the public could both contribute advice and seek information. We will be looking to the new University President for leadership in this direction.
✔The media should be invited to Torbay Airport for a demonstration of how the new system operates and how returning passengers will be prevented from bypassing the system, how they will adopt safe practices at the airport, and after leaving it, and how enforcement will take place under the new Order.
It is time for this condescending and patronizing attitude to end. Government should appoint and empower advisory councils as has been suggested. It has taken too long to make simple changes. The procedures at issue here are logistical and administrative and properly belong in the domain of the appointed public service. Elected officials should set clear policy direction and give the public service the mandate they need to implement the procedures we need to keep us safe.
We can take control of the coronavirus by preventing its importation through tighter measures at points of entry. We can increase testing and contact tracing. We can avoid a second wave if all hands are on deck and all citizens are valued for their opinions. All citizens must be vigilant to ensure that our government is acting in our best interest. Remember it is “we the people” who must ultimately exercise oversight over our government.