Soldiers may have been asymptomatic coronavirus carriers while serving in long-term care homes, Vance says

A handful of Canadian troops infected with the novel coronavirus may have been carrying the virus symptom-free when they were deployed to long-term care homes — and may even have contracted it in the hotels where they were billeted — the country’s top military commander acknowledged today.

The remarks by Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, once again focused attention on the patchy testing regime employed by the Department of National Defence (DND) when over 1,600 troops were tasked with backstopping failing long-term care facilities in Quebec and Ontario.

As CBC News reported earlier this month, the military has been testing only those troops deployed to long-term care homes who have displayed symptoms of the virus. Asymptomatic military members have not been tested.

Vance said most of the 55 soldiers who contracted the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 picked it up in long-term care homes, which have been hotspots of infection throughout the pandemic.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“We believe some of those troops that were determined to be affected had been asymptomatic before the operation started. So a testing regime is going to be really critical going forward, ” Vance told a media briefing Friday on the pending withdrawal of military assistance from long-term care centres. The Canadian Red Cross will stand up hundreds of volunteers to take the place of soldiers over the next month.

Only four infected members of the military remain ill. The rest have recovered and none were hospitalized.

“The possibility they have been infected where they were staying has also been considered,” the defence chief said.

“There was also contact with the virus in the facilities we were living in. We were sharing hotel space with other emergency workers and so on. The virus, you know, is insidious and easily contracted.”

Gaps in DND’s testing protocol

In response to questions from CBC News in early June, DND acknowledged it had no uniform testing program for troops  — an omission that alarmed a leading health and safety policy expert who advised Ontario’s SARS commission more than a decade ago.

The department said it administered COVID-19 tests, but only in certain circumstances.

“To date, primarily symptomatic [Canadian Armed Forces] personnel are being tested for COVID-19, including [Operation] LASER deployed personnel,” said Dan Le Bouthillier, DND head of media relations, in an email on June 3.

“CAF personnel deployed on Op LASER and assessed to be in close contact with active COVID-19 cases in [Long-Term Care Facilities] may be proactively tested based on recommendations of the local public health authority.”

Mario Possamai, a former senior adviser to the Ontario government’s SARS Commission, told CBC News at the time the military’s approach amounted to a patchwork policy that failed to recognize the extraordinary uncertainty surrounding the transmission of COVID-19.

Possamai acknowledged the military was following established federal and provincial health protocols, but argued that approach ignored mounting evidence of symptom-free transmission.

On Friday, Vance defended the decision to limit testing but acknowledged the military had learned important lessons ahead of a possible second wave of the virus — something he said he’s worried about.

Vance said the troops did “a great job” protecting themselves and did the best they could under extraordinary circumstances.

“As we went into those long-term care facilities, we brought with us the best knowledge that we could, but we did not have local knowledge of the facilities themselves,” said Vance.

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