OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces says its medical personnel have been stretched to the limit during the pandemic, suggesting it can offer little help to provincial health care systems overwhelmed by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
A growing number of provinces are being forced to resort to extreme measures to ensure they have enough nurses and doctors to care for patients as the number of Canadians hospitalized because of COVID-19 continues to climb.
The military has stepped up to help fill the gaps on numerous occasions in the past, with about 200 non-medical personnel currently supporting vaccination efforts in Quebec by filling various administrative and logistical roles.
A handful of Canadian Rangers have also been deployed to Bearskin Lake First Nation in northern Ontario to help distribute food, firewood, water and care packages as the community deals with a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected half its population.
Yet the Armed Forces could be hard-pressed to deploy trained medical personnel as Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier says it is dealing with a shortage of doctors and nurses to meet its own requirements.
The military is supposed to have about 2,500 medical personnel, of which only around 460 are doctors and nurses. Their main role is to provide health care to Canadian Armed Forces members at home and overseas.
"The CAF has less than 50 per cent of required physicians available to conduct routine activities or operationally deploy along with only 75 per cent of nurses and 65 per cent of medical technicians," Le Bouthillier told The Canadian Press.
"Over the course of the pandemic, (Canadian Forces Health Services') strength has decreased to the point where it can only fill 60 per cent of its mandated tasks," he added.
Le Bouthillier did not provide more details on why the military has such a shortage of medical personnel, though the Armed Forces has struggled in the past to recruit and retain enough doctors to meet its needs.
In addition to providing all essential medical services to those in uniform, who are not eligible to receive health care from provincial systems, the military’s medical personnel have also been working to vaccinate Armed Forces members.
However, Le Bouthillier said the current shortfall is creating problems in the recruitment and training of troops, as well as the military’s ability to deploy Armed Forces members on missions.
"Health care, screening, vaccinations and testing are all needed to ensure our troops are ready and prepared to deploy when needed," he said in an email.
"CFHS capacity has become the limiting factor for the generation of many CAF capabilities, from recruit medicals to the size of training exercises. The health of the CAF is predicated on the health of CFHS, and both need to be reconstituted."
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos last week also appeared to pour cold water on the prospects of a major infusion of military medical personnel to help provinces deal with the surge in Omicron-fuelled cases.
"We have a very limited amount of health-care resources, health-care trained people in the CAF," he said.
The military reported Wednesday that 144 military personnel have active COVID-19 cases, more than double the number from last month. The increase coincides with a surge in new infections across the whole of Canada and around the world.
Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who previously served as vice-chief of the defence staff and is now chair of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said the military is not designed to provide large-scale medical support to others.
"This is not something that the Canadian Forces is built for at all," he said. "What we are good at is to provide administrative logistics, movement communications, manpower, but not necessarily medical specialties."
The military's medical personnel have previously been called upon to assist with emergencies at home and abroad, with 79 deployed to Sierra Leone in 2014-15 to help the African nation deal with an Ebola outbreak.
But Thibault said that deployment really put a real strain on the military.
"So it's not a lack of willingness," he said. "It's just a lack of capacity, and all the competing demands that are being placed upon them."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press