OTTAWA — A new audit says the federal government was able to get desperately needed medical equipment to provinces and territories despite long-standing issues plaguing its national emergency stockpile.
Auditor general Karen Hogan said before COVID-19 the Public Health Agency of Canada ignored multiple warnings that its national stockpile of emergency medical supplies wasn't being properly managed.
"However, when faced with the pressures created by the pandemic, the agency took action," the audit said.
That included improving how it assessed the needs of provinces, and then went about buying, allocating and distributing the equipment.
Two internal audits in 2010 and 2013 identified significant management problems with the national strategic stockpile, which is intended to amass health equipment and supplies, such as antiviral medication, personal protective gear, and even mobile hospital units, in the event of a health crisis.
The audits found PHAC had no real understanding of how much equipment was needed for the stockpile, or when its contents might expire.
"In our view, given the time that has elapsed since the need to develop and maintain such systems and practices was brought to the agency’s attention, we would have expected full implementation of these important recommendations by now," the audit released Wednesday said.
Despite that, Hogan said quick action as the pandemic began to unfold in 2020 meant Ottawa did manage to supply the provinces with much needed equipment.
PHAC received its first pandemic request for supplies from a provincial government in February 2020. By mid-March, Public Services and Procurement Canada had established a COVID-19 buying team, and began submitting bulk orders.
PHAC also more than doubled its warehouses for the supplies, from eight to 19, mostly using contracts with private warehouse and logistics agencies.
By the end of August it had established a new process that was able to assess and predict needs provinces would have and adjust its orders as needed.
All of this in a time when demand for medical supplies globally was unprecedented, the audit notes.
Health Canada also updated its approval process to quickly license new goods and suppliers, the audit said.
Public Services and Procurement Canada spent more than $7 billion last year on everything from face masks and surgical gloves to hand sanitizer and face shields but Hogan only looked at four specific items including N95 ventilators, surgical gowns, testing swabs and respirators.
The department said as of April 26, it had secured delivery of 131 million surgical gowns, 121 million N95 respirators, and 27,388 ventilators.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press