The Department of National Defence says 28 Canadian service members — 12 in Ontario and 16 in Quebec — have tested positive for the novel coronavirus after serving in long-term care facilities in both provinces.
It’s a dramatic increase in the number of military pandemic cases given that, less than a week ago, the Department of National Defence (DND) was reporting only five cases of COVID-19 among its members.
Defence officials were unable to explain the sudden jump today, but are insisting that all of the necessary safety and training measures have been put in place.
There are 1,675 service members taking part in the pandemic response operation in both provinces; most of them are backstopping Quebec’s network of long-term care homes.
The operation was launched in response to pleas from both provincial governments as infection rates at long-term care centres overwhelmed civilian support staff.
DND committed last week to releasing information every 14 days about the number of soldiers who have become infected — but changed course today and announced there would be a daily update.
Lt.-Col. James Stocker, the commanding officer of Territorial Battle Group 1 in Ontario, said every mission has its unique challenges. He said the troops under his command are well-trained and equipped to operate in what are turning out to be dangerous conditions.
“I think they are quite well prepared for the task,” Stocker told CBC News today, prior to the release of the new figures by DND.
Watch: Lt.-Col. James Stocker on Canadian Forces members working in long-term care homes
The sudden jump in cases will lead to greater scrutiny of the safety precautions taken by the military, and of their personal protective gear.
The troops in each nursing home — a mix of medical personnel and general purpose soldiers — take their cues on the protective equipment they need (such as masks, gowns and face shields) from provincial authorities and the guidelines laid down by the military’s medical branch and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Troops need better training, says veterans advocate
Whether they wear N-95 respirators on the job depends on the individual circumstances in each home, and how close they are to elderly patients infected with the novel coronavirus.
“All I can offer is that we follow the guidelines of medical advisers,” said Stocker. “They offer a range of guidelines on the situation and we govern ourselves accordingly.”
A veterans advocate who has been tracking the pandemic deployment of troops said last week he had no issues with the protective equipment issued to Canadian Forces members taking part in pandemic response — but was worried about their level of training.
Retired corporal Sylivain Chartrand, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, cited one report from a suburban Montreal long-term care home of troops changing out of their work clothes and back into their uniforms in the same room.
He called for better instruction and for the federal government to designate the long-term care home deployment as a “special duty” operation — which would open the door to participating Canadian Forces members receiving long-term veterans benefits should they need them.