Canada’s auditor general’s office has found the Yukon had outdated and incomplete emergency and pandemic planning leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic that could leave territorial government departments unprepared to respond to emergencies that might arise.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took its hold and evolved around the world, the federal government procured and paid for vaccines and coordinated their distribution to the provinces and territories. On June 20, the auditor general’s office released its report on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the Yukon.
In a press conference, deputy auditor general Andrew Hayes told reporters the Yukon government’s plans for emergencies and pandemics had been put in place more than a decade ago and hadn’t been updated. Early in the pandemic, there was an update, however that update only amounted to deleting references to the H1N1 virus.
“In the absence of up-to-date plans, roles and responsibilities aren’t clear,” he said.
“It’s not clear which parties need to be engaged and when, and there are lessons that can be learned from pandemics that should be brought forward for future health crises.”
Hayes noted that resulted in information being provided late to First Nations and an inconsistency in the way some frontline workers had been prioritized to get vaccinated.
Overall, Hayes said, the Yukon’s Health and Social Services department, Community Services department and Executive Council Office “worked well together to vaccinate residents quickly and on a priority basis despite a lack of up to date and complete pandemic plans.”
The rollout in the territory was comparable to other provinces and territories in terms of vaccine uptake and wastage, he said.
“The Government of Yukon showed that it can pull together the three departments — pull together quickly — to get the vaccines out very efficiently to the population.”
Hayes said that within weeks of obtaining the first shipment of vaccine doses, the departments managed to vaccinate vulnerable groups in Whitehorse and put up a mass vaccination clinic in the capital to progressively reach all age groups while mobile teams travelled to remote communities so that anyone age 18 and up could be vaccinated in or near their home community.
Eighty-one per cent of Yukoners had received two doses of the vaccine by November 2022, which was comparable to the rest of the country. Per the report, the Yukon incurred almost $8.8 million in direct rollout costs for the 2020 to 2021 and 2021 to 2022 fiscal years.
“While the territorial government’s approach to the rollout was effective at getting people vaccinated, we found weaknesses in the monitoring of and reporting on the vaccine rollout,” Hayes said.
Hayes said the health department did not have an efficient way to track the supply and inventory of vaccines, instead relying on manual documentation, which led to errors and discrepancies in the inventory levels and waste reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada and prevented the department from keeping tabs on its inventory.
Despite the Yukon government’s recognition of a historical legacy of colonialism and discriminatory health-care policies and practices in Canada, the report found departments left Yukon First Nations out of the rollout process.
“For example, despite regular meetings with the departments, First Nations were briefed late on the rollout plan and had limited input throughout its implementation,” Hayes said.
Hayes called it a “missed opportunity” to better understand and meet the needs of First Nations.
“Engaging with First Nations should not merely be a box to be ticked on a list of required actions. It is a commitment that must be acted on to address and break down barriers, improve sensitivity and inclusion and rebuild trust,” he said.
“The Government of Yukon needs to put actions behind its words and work in partnership early, often and meaningfully with First Nations not just in emergencies, but across the spectrum of programs and services it provides. This means engaging with First Nations at the outset and meeting with them regularly to reflect their feedback and government decisions.”
Among its recommendations, the report recommends meaningful collaboration with First Nations to ensure barriers faced by First Nations are improved.
The departments have agreed to all seven recommendations.
Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee and Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn issued a joint statement following the release of the report that commits to “swift and effective” action.
“We are committed to incorporating the [auditor general office’s] recommendations into our work, with a particular focus on improving emergency plans and vaccine distribution protocols. The need to prioritize frontline workers and essential service providers in our vaccination program is recognized and will be executed in an accessible and fair manner,” reads the statement.
The statement indicates the government’s goal was to closely communicate with First Nations, municipal governments and Yukoners.
“We will continue to work with First Nations governments and municipalities to implement the lessons learned from the pandemic and outline clear roles, responsibilities and communication strategies during future such emergencies. In addressing the diverse needs of Yukon communities, we understand the importance of working towards cultural safety in frontline immunization services, particularly concerning First Nations communities,” the statement reads.
“The development of efficient data-sharing protocols with First Nations governments is also well underway to meet their specific needs more effectively. To further enhance our operations, we are nearing the completion of a comprehensive electronic inventory management system to optimize tracking of vaccine inventory, wastage and expected coverage.”
Yukon NDP Leader Kate White ultimately applauded the Yukon government for doing a “good job.”
“I think we can all recognize [and] acknowledge the massive amount of work that went into like frontline workers who were those vaccination teams and the people there,” she said.
“It’s really important for all frontline people to have like cultural sensitivity training to make sure that when they’re going into First Nation communities that they have that base knowledge and that everybody has that same level of understanding.”
White is a member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly’s all-party public accounts committee, which she said will dig into the report and keep the Yukon government on track in its response to the recommendations. The committee may hold a public hearing on the report and the government’s response.
White said she will be looking for detailed timelines, for example when it comes to reviewing the Civil Emergency Measures Act.
In an email statement, the Yukon Party thanked department officials who did the hard work to achieve timely access to vaccines in the territory, despite some of the negative findings related to pandemic planning and collaboration with First Nations.
Hayes reflected on the importance of examining the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“In the future, if vaccines are even more of a scarce commodity, any wastage or any lack of tracking those vaccines would become a problem, especially when you look at it at the national level where, across the country, we need to vaccinate our vulnerable populations and the rest of our people that want a vaccine,” he said.
“In terms of dealing with historic concerns about health care and discrimination, using the lessons learned can help everyone understand the benefits or the reasons to get vaccinated and to increase the coverage.”
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org