By Noe Chartier
Federal public service employees put on leave without pay for refusing mandatory COVID-19 vaccination told a labour tribunal that infections in the workforce rose tenfold after the mandate was implemented, citing the government’s own data.
“Why did people become sick in such great numbers in the public service if they were immunized?” asked Bernard Desgagné, who represents two employees whose files are being adjudicated by the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board.
The board is currently hearing its first case related to grievances from public servants whose salaries were withheld and employment insurance benefits denied for not complying with the vaccine mandate, which was in effect from October 2021 to June 2022.
Mr. Desgagné, a public servant himself and not a lawyer, put the question to Dr. Celia Lourenco who was being cross-examined on July 13. Dr. Lourenco, currently the acting associate assistant deputy minister with Health Canada, was formerly the the department’s director-general of the Biologic and Radiopharmaceutical Drugs Directorate and as such had final authority on new vaccine approvals during the COVID crisis.
Mr. Desgagné presented official data showing that before the mandate was imposed, the government had tallied on average 321 cases of COVID-19 infections per month among public servants.
After the mandate came into force, that number jumped to 3,297 cases per month, a tenfold increase, or almost 1,000 percent. Some of the government data presented comes with the caveat that the “total number of cases may not reflect an accurate count due to the lack of availability of tests.”
Mr. Desgagné remarked that all of the public servants were vaccinated, “so why such a huge number of people got sick with COVID?”
Dr. Lourenco said she wasn’t aware of that data and did not express an opinion on it. She said it would be a question for an epidemiologist to look at, by evaluating what variant was circulating or where the employees were located.
“I wouldn’t know otherwise why that would be, why you’re seeing these numbers,” she said.
Shortly after the mandate came into force in October 2021, the Omicron variant became dominant and the COVID-19 injections offered little protection. The government’s own data contained in a now-public secret briefing said that the vaccines’ protection against infection was “20 percent or less in most studies by 6 months or more after vaccination.”
Quebec provincial data also showed that vaccinated individuals were getting infected at a higher rate in early January 2022, and Ontario data showed higher infection rates in individuals who received a booster dose in the spring. Quebec stopped publishing the data in early January 2022 and Ontario stopped reporting on vaccination statuses in late June 22.
Mr. Desgagné pressed Dr. Lourenco by noting she had testified that in order to surveil the product she had approved, she was constantly appraised by the Public Health Agency of Canada of what was being observed in the field.
“They should have made you aware of that increase in infections after mandatory mass vaccination,” he said.
“This is not a scientific study,” replied Dr. Lourenco, adding that raw data only tells a small part of the story. Without more information, conclusions cannot be drawn, she said.
Mr. Desgagné set up his line of questioning by addressing the issue of breakthrough infections through the presentation of different studies.
He cited one study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in August 2021 about breakthrough infections in Massachusetts. The paper said that 469 cases were identified among residents of the state who had attended public events in Barnstable Country, with 74 percent of cases occurring in fully vaccinated individuals.
Dr. Lourenco said she wasn’t aware of the study but that she knew about breakthrough infections.
Shortly after the publication of the CDC study, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would fulfill his campaign promise and impose vaccination mandates on the public service and federally regulated sectors.
“The top priority remains getting everyone their vaccine,” he said in late September 2021 after winning the election. “Getting vaccination rates up is the way to ensure not only we’re keeping our loved ones safe, but we’re keeping our health systems from getting overloaded, we’re keeping away from having to do further lockdowns in our communities, and we’re allowing our economy and normal life to get back as quickly as possible.”
Dr. Lourenco was cross-examined in relation to the travel vaccine mandate lawsuit in June 2022, and at that time said the vaccines would have never been approved had they shown their current effectiveness to be less than 50 percent against infection. The health official said they’ve been kept on the market for their protection against severe outcomes.
She acknowledged on July 13 that an increase in cases, as seen during the vaccine mandate period and the first Omicron wave, necessarily leads to more hospitalizations.