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Canada has failed to learn vital lessons from past pandemics, and front-line workers are now paying the price, according to some of Canada's top health-care associations.

They say Canada entered the COVID-19 crisis without enough personal protective equipment, ventilators or workers — and a health-care system that routinely operates over capacity.

"We were caught flat footed," Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said in her Tuesday teleconference testimony to the House of Commons health committee.

"I don't think we were adequately prepared or we wouldn't have found ourselves in this situation."

The Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions were among the first to raise the alarm about the ways the country might find itself unprepared to deal with a major COVID-19 outbreak.

After the SARS outbreak in Ontario in 2003, a specially appointed commission made 36 pages worth of recommendations to strengthen the Canadian health-care system against future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

While many changes were made after that outbreak, including the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada, other lessons went unheeded, the medical associations told MPs.

For years, physicians and other emergency medical staff have warned about a lack of surge capacity in the nation's hospitals, for example.

While hospitals should be operating comfortably at about 85 per cent occupancy, they routinely try to function at 110 per cent.

"This is something that needs to be taken care of, both from a basic human decency perspective but also for pandemic planning," said Dr. Alan Drummond with the emergency physicians' group.

"This is the lesson we must learn: these pandemics are not going away."

Canada failed to learn from past pandemics: health-care associations

Rather than make use of available space in the system, hospitals have been forced to cancel less urgent medical procedures and routine ambulatory care to make room for a possible influx of COVID-19 patients.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu acknowledged last week that Canada's stockpile of protective equipment was likely insufficient to deal with the pandemic.

That issue is top of mind for all front-line health-care workers who presented to the committee.

Linda Silas, president of the Federation of Nurses Unions, said health workers are often taught to put patients first. But in a situation where workers' lives and their family's lives are at risk, their safety must be put on equal footing.

NDP health critic Don Davies referenced a memo from a Hamilton, Ont., hospital that suggested workers should continue to use the same mask until they were "grossly soiled," as a means of rationing supply.

"Sick, sick, sick," Silas responded.

That's leading to a lot of anxiety for physicians and other medical staff about what will happen if they run out of masks and protective clothing and start to get sick, Buchman said.

But while Canada didn't learn some of the necessary lessons from SARS, H1N1 and other outbreaks, Buchman said he doesn't think Canada is unique — and doesn't know of any country that was prepared to deal with COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020.