The coroner's inquiry into the deaths in seniors' residences in Quebec during the first wave of COVID-19 has heard from its final witness this year, but coroner Géhane Kamel said Wednesday she needs to hear from at least one more witness to answer some lingering questions.
Wednesday's only witness was Nathalie Rosebush, an assistant deputy minister in the ministry responsible for seniors. She already testified once before the inquiry, two weeks ago.
At the time Rosebush said provincial inspection reports from long-term care homes during the first wave had been deleted and were no longer available.
Her initial testimony prompted heated debate at the National Assembly, with opposition parties accusing the CAQ government of losing, destroying or falsifying those reports.
Rosebush was called back to testify Wednesday to provide some clarity about the reports, but her testimony prompted new questions from the coroner about the province's level of preparedness leading up to the first wave.
"I'm sure people were working hard to prevent a disaster, but it was too little, too late," Kamel commented at one point.
Inspection reports deleted, then recovered
The inspection reports that Rosebush was talking about were from spot visits made by ministry inspectors to various long-term care homes during the first wave.
Rosebush explained that inspectors often didn't take notes during these visits, mostly because infection control protocols at the time didn't allow them to bring even pens and paper inside care homes.
She testified that inspectors would generally go to their cars after an inspection and enter data into a pre-existing inspection template on their laptops.
Rosebush said that each time new data was entered into this template, it was updated and any data from previous inspections was erased.
She said this was her understanding when she first testified, but that since then government IT experts were able to recover some of the lost data, and that it has since been handed over to the coroner's office.
Kamel, after expressing frustration over the confusion about the reports earlier this week, said she was satisfied with Rosebush's explanation.
Health minister Christian Dubé, speaking in the National Assembly later on Wednesday, said he also believes the matter of the reports is now settled.
"I think we should leave the coroner to do her work, so we can have a fair and complete appreciation of what happened. That's why she's investigating," Dubé said.
Coroner suggests 'lack of urgency' in Quebec's pandemic preparations
But Rosebush's testimony prompted other questions about how long it took the government to warn long-term care homes to prepare for COVID.
Rosebush testified that public health officials first flagged the new coronavirus as a particular risk for seniors in late January 2020, when it first started being mentioned at meetings with the heads of local health agencies.
The first case at a long-term care home was declared March 2. The province finally sent a manual to care homes with advice on how to deal with the virus on March 12.
"What happened between January and March?" Kamel asked Rosebush at one point, noting that public health officials in British Columbia began preparing long-term care homes for the pandemic much earlier.
"It's the same country," Kamel said, noting that public health officials from different provinces were in regular contact during this period.
Rosebush replied that the government was busy throughout the month of February 2020: preparing the guide for long term care homes, procuring personal protective equipment, and holding daily meetings with seven different government committees.
Kamel said even with all those committees, it seems to her as though the government was slow to respond, and that this was a "lingering concern" for her.
Some opposition politicians agreed.
"The further the coroner's inquest advances, the more the government sinks into contradictions that become increasingly difficult to justify," Vincent Marissal, the opposition Québec Solidaire health critic, told reporters at the National Assembly after Rosebush's testimony.
Marissal then repeated his demand that the province go beyond the coroner's inquiry and convene a public inquiry into what happened at CHSLDs.
Another witness added
Rosebush was supposed to be the final witness at Kamel's inquiry, which has already been extended several times. Lawyers representing various interested parties are due to start delivering closing submissions to the inquiry in the new year on Jan. 10.
But now, after Rosebush's testimony, Kamel wants to hear from one more witness: Pierre Lafleur, an assistant deputy minister in the Public Security Ministry.
According to Rosebush, it was Lafleur who was responsible for convening the government's main coronavirus-response committee in January 2020.
Kamel said Lafleur would be asked to testify before closing submissions begin.