Dispatch Lite: Look what happens when we ask the government for basic information
Final score: Government comms bureaucrats 2, The Line 0
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For your viewing pleasure, this week’s Line editors dispatch video. Please compliment Jen’s hair. (Don’t bother with Matt’s. He’d get suspicious.)
Your Line editors would forgive you if you had the same reaction to news of a spreading monkeypox outbreak that we did: a heavy sigh, a rub of the temples, and a moment of plaintive wondering just what the sweet hell was going wrong now. We’ve spent some time looking into it this week, and we’ve come up with what we think is a bit of a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that we’re not worried about a new pandemic. The bad news is we would probably be screwed if this became one.
We write this fully aware that this is a fluid situation and all of our conclusions are tentative. Our understanding of this outbreak may change as more information becomes known to us. But based on what is known at this time, what appears to have happened is that someone was infected with monkeypox, which is related to smallpox, and this person travelled (or returned from) abroad and infected others. This is not unheard of. These things happen. This is why epidemiologists and pandemic watchers have always been concerned about the danger of ubiquitous high-speed global air travel. What is novel about this situation is the number of cases that are popping up and the number of locations where they are being detected: Europe, Canada, the United States.
There are two possible explanations for this. One is that something has happened to the virus itself that makes it more easily communicable. The second is that there is something about the circumstances of this particular outbreak that are causing it to spread further and faster than we would expect.
Your Line editors are well aware of the historical baggage they are about to begin gently prodding with a big stick here, but this outbreak does, at this time, seem to be more the latter. Early indications are that this outbreak was spread after a superspreader event at a gay bathhouse (a "sauna," in the local vernacular) in Spain. Again, we can only stress that we are very much aware of the incredible trauma and damage that was done to the gay community by the stigma they endured during the AIDS crisis. The last thing we would ever want to do is contribute to some modern version of that. At this time, though, that is what authorities believe happened: European officials think it started there and began to spread among men who have sex with men. This seems to be the conclusion shared by Canadian officials as well.
This is good news, of a kind. Rather than kicking off another cycle of stigmatization, we hope what happens instead is that people who may be at risk contact their doctors, and that everyone at potential risk take good health precautions. A rapid campaign of outreach to possibly infected individuals and the broader community, warning them of the danger and urging safety, is a vastly preferable alternative to a relative of smallpox suddenly becoming more transmissible.
So, despite the awkward and painful echoes to the catastrophe of the 1980's-era AIDS outbreaks, this seems to be a situation that ought to be brought under control in short order — we're probably only really paying much attention right now because the recent pandemic has us all on guard. Still, entirely out of a sense of curiosity, Line editor Matt Gurney tried to figure out what Canada's stockpile of smallpox vaccine looks like. (Smallpox vaccines provide excellent protection against monkeypox.) Canadians born much after the early 1970s have not been regularly vaccinated against smallpox. The virus was basically eradicated here before that. But some stockpiles are kept, the feds have said, because the virus does pop up occasionally, and it is so exceptionally nasty that it makes sense to keep a few proverbial fire extinguishers close at hand. Indeed, in the United States, the CDC oversees a stockpile sufficient to inoculate the entire population, if necessary.
Are we in Canada doing anything like that?
We don’t know.
It’s not like we didn’t ask. Gurney reached out to the federal government about this earlier this week. What he got back was a completely typical government comms statement: mostly fluff, followed by a refusal to answer the question. You don’t have to take our word for it. Here is the entirety of the response Gurney received from Public Health Canada:
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) manages and allocates supplies that provinces and territories can request in emergencies when their own resources are insufficient, such as during infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters and other public health events. The purpose of the NESS is to provide surge support to provinces and territories. It is not intended to replace supplies that provinces and territories hold or procure. With public health being a shared responsibility, provinces and territories are also responsible for preparing and maintaining their own supply and stockpiling capacities.
As the NESS has modernized, the stockpile has focused on stockpiling strategic medical supplies that are typically not held by provinces and territories. The supplies in the NESS are regularly reviewed and replenished.
PHAC does not disclose details concerning medical countermeasures held by the NESS, including types and quantities, due to security and confidentiality implications and requirements.
Two things jumped out at Gurney right away when he saw that, and we suspect you saw it too. The first, of course, is the refusal to actually answer the question — a pretty basic and reasonable question, we might add. The next thing you might’ve noticed is how most of that email is shoving Gurney off to the provinces. Right? Read over the response from Public Health Canada again and tell us that you don’t get the distinct impression that this federal comms employee is sending us off to go pester some provincial bureaucrat.
So that’s what we did! Gurney reached out to the Ontario Ministry of Health, and after some annoying delays while they asked what the angle of the intended story was and who it would be for — not that that should matter, but they do often ask that sort of thing — Gurney got back this response from the Ontario health ministry:
The Smallpox vaccine is part of the federal government’s emergency stockpile.
It is not used routinely in immunization programs.
Well. Okay, then!
So, what are we make from this? First, we honestly don’t know what stockpiles, if any, we have on hand to deal with a monkeypox outbreak, in the unlikely event one becomes a major public-health concern.
The next thing we can say is that neither the feds nor provinces seem to know what the other is doing, which we wish we found surprising, but really, really don’t.
The third conclusion we draw is that the response of the federal government, when viewed alongside the response by the provincial government, is that they are essentially asking us to trust them. There is a strategic stockpile, but they don’t want to tell us what’s in it. We are, in effect, as a nation, being asked to just take their word for it and trust that they know what they’re doing.
Sorry, but, no. We don’t take their word for it and we don't trust that they know what they're doing. We are not worried about a monkeypox pandemic. But we are far too close to the many failures of Canadian public-health officials during the COVID pandemic to contemplate, even for one goddamn moment, taking anything that our governments might say about the prospect of a new public health emergency on faith.
Sorry, guys. You just didn’t do a good enough job during COVID-19 for us to accept for an instant that you would have the first fucking clue what to do if this monkeypox outbreak really was the virus mutating into a more easily transmissible form. You simply are not in a position to ask the Canadian people to take your word for it. You just haven't earned the benefit of the doubt.
So: All we want to know is the size of the total national stockpile of smallpox vaccines, just in case. We don’t care which level of government oversees the inventory. We just want to know if there is one, somewhere, that Canada could access, in a worst-case scenario.
It’s a pretty reasonable question. And you’ve now all seen for yourselves what journalists face when trying to get simple answers to pretty reasonable questions. It's not good. But it’s entirely typical of how our efforts to access basic information are met. And none of this does anything to convince us we'd do any better against Monkeypox-22 than we did against COVID-19.
Okay, folks. That’s all. Happy Victoria Day! See you all next week. Please join us, if you can. We have fireworks to buy. No wait. Journalism to support. Yeah. That.
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