The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada is stepping down only 18 months into the job, leaving the federal agency tasked with coordinating the country’s COVID-19 response without a leader, CBC News has learned.
In a letter to staff, Tina Namiesniowski said she needs to “take a break” and “step aside so someone else can step up” to lead the agency as caseloads spike and testing times creep up in some parts of the country.
Namiesniowski said she would be stepping aside for a new president, who could be named as early as next week.
“You really need someone who will have the energy and the stamina to take the agency and our response to the next level,” she said in internal correspondence announcing her departure. CBC News has seen a copy of her letter to staff.
“While responding to this crisis, we’ve done many things since then to add capacity, improve processes, take on new roles and really build up the competence that had diminished in recent years. All of this work has taken a personal toll on so many people … I put myself in that category.”
Before her appointment to the top job at PHAC in May 2019, Namiesniowski held a number of senior postings within government. She served as the executive vice-president of the Canada Border Services Agency and was an assistant deputy minister at Agriculture Canada and Public Safety Canada.
PHAC has come in for criticism in recent months as Canada’s response to the COVID-19 crisis — which has killed 9,200 people in this country — has been questioned by some critics.
The federal government’s initial reluctance to close the border as the virus spread in Asia, its depleted national emergency stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early months of this pandemic, confusing guidance on the wearing of masks and other perceived failures have been cited by opposition parties in Parliament and others as examples of Canada’s uneven response to COVID-19.
“We have all been working non-stop in a high pressure environment subjected to significant scrutiny and without a doubt, we’ve risen to the challenge,” Namiesniowski said.
On Namiesniowski’s watch, some scientists working for the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) complained that their early warnings about the threat of COVID-19 were ignored or inadequately addressed by senior staff at PHAC.
The network, a federal government-run monitoring and analysis unit, alerts senior officials to health risks around the globe by compiling media reports and other intelligence about outbreaks.
CBC News reported in April on concerns about the network’s alerts not being as widely disseminated as they had been during past health crises.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu has ordered a review of the network amid the complaints.