Five Canadian Forces soldiers have been infected with the novel coronavirus while serving in Quebec and Ontario nursing homes — four in Quebec and one in Ontario — the Department of National Defence said today.
That word came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the news in response to questions from CBC News and Radio Canada journalists at his daily media availability this morning.
Watch | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to military cases of COVID-19:
The department offered few details, other than a breakdown of the infections by province and a list of the protective measures the military was taking for the 1,675 service members taking part in the assistance operation. That operation was launched in response to pleas from both provinces for help in long-term care facilities overrun by COVID-19 cases.
Separately, the country’s top military commander, in his weekly letter to the troops, acknowledged that some members of the military had also been quarantined for assessment.
“We continue to work to mitigate the threat, employing all the necessary protocols, with the advice of our CAF Surgeon General, but the reality is our personnel are working in an environment where the threat is high,” said Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff.
Vance did not say how many troops are in quarantine.
A veteran’s advocate who has been tracking the pandemic deployment said one of the four service members infected in Quebec was performing duties at the Villa Val des Arbres in Laval, a suburb of Montreal.
That infected soldier, who has not been identified, was part of a team of military members who arrived at the seniors home on April 20 in response to an urgent request for assistance from the Quebec government, said Sylvain Chartrand of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.
After the soldier tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the entire team was removed from the home. It’s not clear whether they were told to isolate themselves.
‘We’re proud of the work that we’re doing’
A second case is said to be a military dentist who also took up duties in one of the long-term care centres — possibly in the Montreal area, the current epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.
National Defence did not provide details about the other three confirmed cases, but pledged to release statistics every two weeks on the deployment in order to reassure military families and the public.
The highest-ranking officer in Quebec, Brig.-Gen. Gervais Carpentier, insisted the operation’s COVID-19 caseload is low, given the size of the deployment, and that the troops received medical checks and proper training prior to deployment.
“It’s a tough situation. We never wished for this kind of situation, but we’re proud of the work that we’re doing,” Carpentier told CBC News.
Carpentier would not discuss details of the service members’ cases or indicate how sick they are right now.
He said the risks were known going in and the troops were well-equipped and well-trained.
“The important part of our preparations was to make sure that we knew how to don and wear the personal protective equipment to ensure … max safety for personnel,” said Carpentier.
A ‘high contamination risk’
How much protective equipment the troops wear depends on the extent of the outbreaks in the homes where they’re deployed; Carpentier said the military is taking its cues from provincial health authorities.
Chartrand, however, has doubts.
He said he is not going to question the adequacy of the protective equipment but, with regards to the Laval case he was tracking, he was told the soldiers in the detachment were all changing in and out of their equipment in the same room, in violation of provincial health protocols.
That should be investigated, Chartrand said.
“That’s a contamination risk. A high contamination risk … So, I mean, do they have proper training?”
With so little known about COVID’s long-term health implications, Chartrand said, the federal government should declare the pandemic deployment a special duty operation. That would allow troops to claim veterans benefits — if they end up needing them.
He was supported in his call Friday by NDP defence critic Randall Garrison.
“Canada’s troops are always ready to step in when they’re needed in a crisis and they deserve to compensated for the important work they do on the front lines — overseas and here at home,” Garrison said in a statement.
Watch | Brig.-Gen. Gervais Carpentier on Canadian Armed Forces members who have tested positive for COVID-19:
“There are always risks in what they do and they go into that knowingly and willingly, and that is why we offer them our deepest gratitude every day,” Trudeau said.
“At the same time, we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect them, so we will look at the protocols in place and see if and how they can be strengthened … ensuring that cases of COVID-19 don’t spread throughout the [Canadian Armed Forces] and others who are serving their country.”