Quebec coroner 'uncomfortable' with Arruda's answers about pandemic preparedness in care homes

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Quebec's director of public health, Horacio Arruda, arrives to testify at the coroner's inquiry in Quebec City on Monday.  (Pascal Poinlane/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Quebec's director of public health, Horacio Arruda, arrives to testify at the coroner's inquiry in Quebec City on Monday. (Pascal Poinlane/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The coroner overseeing an inquest into COVID-19 deaths in Quebec's long-term care homes questioned some of the responses from the province's top public health official on Monday.

Horacio Arruda, Quebec's public health director, is the highest-ranking public official to testify at the inquiry so far, and during his two days of testimony he was forced to defend many of the government's decisions in preparing for the first wave of the pandemic.

Arruda testified Monday that his department, when planning for the pandemic, had internal discussions about the possible risks COVID-19 might pose to seniors in long term care residences (CHSLDs) as early as January and February of 2020.

Corner Géhane Kamel told Arruda Monday that she was surprised to hear that, considering that all testimony at the inquiry to this point suggested that there was almost 'no planning' for pandemic response in CHSLDs in the early months of that year.

"It's a bit troubling what you're saying," Kamel said.

She noted that when the pandemic hit, it was clear there wasn't enough staff, personal protective equipment or training in CHSLDs and that they were "anything but ready" for the pandemic.

Kamel said she was "really uncomfortable" with Arruda's responses.

Nearly 4,000 people died in long-term care homes in the first wave of the pandemic that spring.

Arruda noted that his department sent a COVID-19 preparation guide to CHSLDs on March 12, and that he took quick action to curtail infections by banning visitors later that month.

But he admitted that the thousands of deaths in CHSLDs during the first wave "raises questions" about planning and how resources were distributed.

Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer for the families of some of the residents who died, asked Arruda if seniors' residences were "a blind spot" in pandemic planning.

"It depends how you interpret the term 'blind spot," Arruda responded.

A 'mad house'

After Arruda's testimony concluded, Martin-Ménard told reporters that what he heard was unsatisfying.


Martin-Ménard noted that at several points during his testimony Arruda responded by saying certain things didn't fall under his responsibility, or that other witnesses would be better placed to respond.

"What emerges a lot from Dr. Arruda's testimony, and from other witness' testimony, is that it's very difficult to know who decided what when," Martin-Ménard said.

"It's a little bit like a madhouse," he said.

Arruda's testimony sets the stage for the testimony Wednesday of former health minister Danielle McCann, the first and only elected official scheduled to testify at the inquiry.

Initially Marguerite Blais, the minister responsible for seniors, was to testify, but McCann was asked to take her place when Blais went on sick leave last month.

The inquiry Monday was also scheduled to hear from two deputy ministers who were heavily involved in pandemic planning, Lucie Opatrny and Nathalie Rosebush.

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