Alberta government releases review of early COVID-19 response — but NDP say recommendations weren’t taken

The Official Opposition is slamming the United Conservative government for allegedly not heeding several recommendations made in a report that reviewed its response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The KPMG report is damaging. It provides very real evidence and recommendations that the government ignored entirely,” said Alberta NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman during a news conference Saturday.

The Alberta government hired KPMG, an international auditing firm, nearly a year ago to review its early pandemic response and offer recommendations to improve the response in the future.

KPMG solely looked at actions and data from March 2020 to October 2020, and only reviewed actions of the Alberta government. Actions and decisions from municipal and federal governments, as well as third-party stakeholders such as private care homes, were not considered.

Specifically, the final report reviewed acute-care capacity, continuing-care and economic responses, governance and decision making, procurement and PPE, and communications and engagement.

The 126-page report, dated January 2021, was released publicly late Friday afternoon.

Opposition NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman accused the UCP government of not heeding any of the recommendations from the KPMG report during a news conference Saturday. (John Shypitka/CBC)

It recommends bolstering capacity of the health-care labour force and flexibility for backfilling staffing shortages in Alberta’s continuing-care system; implementing strategies to increase uptake of business supports; and working closely with communities to make provincial health rules more effective.

It also recommends the Alberta government conduct a comprehensive review of its pandemic response once vaccination efforts are underway, and to continue analyzing and engaging stakeholders to improve the ongoing pandemic response.

Those two recommendations were made, in part, because the review was not as thorough as KPMG had originally intended.

Due to the second wave of COVID-19, the provincial government asked KPMG to complete its work based on information it had gathered as of Nov. 27, 2020, and issue a report on work completed. KPMG did not incorporate new information received after Dec. 4, 2020.

“The pandemic response effort itself had to be prioritized over completion of a full review process as initially planned,” the report says.

Initially, the review was to probe health care and economic responses, governance and decision making, procurement, communications and engagement and collaboration.

Alberta should be adaptable to health workforce needs: report

The provincial government maintains its pandemic influenza plan, which is in place to guide response efforts should a pandemic occur. It includes provisions such as stockpiling equipment and training employees, among others, the report says.

But COVID-19 presented a challenge nobody could have prepared for, it adds.

The report highlighted that the Alberta government used and expanded existing health care capacity by increasing “staffing resources,” ICU capacity and the number of hospital beds, while cancelling non-urgent or elective surgeries. A single health authority — Alberta Health Services — also created structural advantages.

KPMG made no recommendations for Alberta’s acute-care first-wave response, citing limited interviews with “health system leaders and staff,” no engagement with clinical nor front-line workers — though existing survey data was reviewed where available — and no data to assess capacity of public health resources.

It did recommend, however, that the province implement strategies to support health-care worker capacity and flexibility, in order to backfill staff shortages in continuing care, which includes long-term care facilities.

The system showed adaptability and responsiveness to challenges early in the pandemic. But it “will be important to monitor mental health and wellness of the workforce, particularly as deaths in the system increase,” the report says.

The report cites that Alberta had 323 COVID-19 deaths as of Oct. 12, 2020.

That count has since increased to 2,325 as of Friday. Many deaths, during the second wave in particular, stemmed from COVID-19 outbreaks in continuing-care facilities.

Report recommends province further helps businesses

Alberta implemented softer business restrictions than other provinces, which allowed more businesses to remain open.

But the report suggested the provincial government further help independent businesses, which were still similarly impacted by COVID-19 as businesses in other provinces, as well as the volatility of oil prices.

There was a lower uptake of business supports than expected from small- and medium-sized businesses, including Alberta’s Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant, the report says.

The grant offered a one-time payment of up to $5,000 to businesses that had to shut down or “reduce operations” because of public health restrictions.

The low uptake of Alberta’s Small and Medium-sized Enterprise Relaunch Grant signals the required threshold to receive support deterred people from applying, the report says. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As of Oct. 12, 2020, there were nearly 14,000 successful applicants since May 2020 — about 81 per cent of all applications received — but less than one-third of the committed funds were allotted, the report says.

Meanwhile, the report cites a survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses that suggested 60 per cent of Alberta businesses would not easily survive a second wave of restrictions, and nearly one-in-five were considering bankruptcy or “winding down.”

“The combination of low uptake, observable economic decline, and concern about viability of businesses going forward suggest that available funding should be maximized,” the report says.

KPMG recommended implementing strategies to increase uptake of support to small- and medium-sized businesses, adding that may require the province to work with stakeholders from the various industries and adjust thresholds to receive money.

The province has since lowered the threshold needed to receive funding and has increased its funding of the grant program.

UCP government did not take report’s advice, NDP says

Recommendations regarding continuing care, businesses and communications could start immediately, the report says.

The report is dated in January, and Hoffman of the NDP says the government has had the report since at least March.

“This KPMG report is substantial on the first wave and the government sat on it,” Hoffman told reporters Saturday.

The United Conservatives did nothing to help health-care staffing capacity, and there was little to no communication with local businesses, she said.

Hoffman reinforced her party’s call for a judicial review of the UCP government’s entire pandemic response.

“There needs to be accountability,” she said.

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