COVID-19: B.C. promises more access to pandemic information

B.C. doesn’t make anywhere near the same level of detail available to the public as other provinces, critics say.

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Provincial officials have committed to providing more information on how COVID-19 is affecting specific neighbourhoods after criticism that the province was withholding crucial figures from the public.

Despite that, the provincial health officer defended the province’s release of COVID-19 information, insisting officials release as much information as they can and denying that B.C. falls behind other provinces in terms of transparency.

“We are releasing more than what other provinces are releasing,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday.

Henry said every month she and Health Minister Adrian Dix present COVID-19 modelling information based on information compiled by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

“All of these data are used in a way that can help inform what people understand about this pandemic and how we’re managing it and progressing through it together,” she said.

Henry was responding to a pair of internal B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports leaked to Postmedia News which critics say proves the government is withholding vital COVID-19 information from the public.

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The internal reports — each of which runs over 45 pages — are four times longer than the weekly reports published by the Centre. They delve into the details of COVID-19 case counts and vaccinations at the neighbourhood level, breakdowns about variants of concern, and more.

Crucially, the figures show that parts of northwest Surrey including Whalley and Newton had an average of 40 COVID-19 cases a day for every 100,0000 people, more than double the rate of most other areas of Metro Vancouver. In Whalley and Newton, more than 20 per cent of COVID-19 tests were positive, compared to 11 per cent for the whole province. Despite this, those neighbourhoods, plus Guildford, had a lower first-dose vaccination rate.

Dr. Réka Gustafson, the deputy provincial health officer, said Friday the province is working “every single day” to make information more-accessible and user friendly. She said neighbourhood-specific COVID cases and immunization rates will be regularly released “in the coming weeks.”

Epidemiologists, data scientists, Metro Vancouver mayors and community advocates have consistently called on the province to release more detailed COVID figures to inform the public about how the virus is spreading in certain communities and how to address it from a public health perspective. Jean-Paul Soucy, co-founder of the COVID-19 Canada Open Data Working Group, has criticized B.C. as one of the worst performers among provinces in terms of COVID-19 transparency.

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Ontario and Alberta, for example, release neighbourhood-specific data which includes data on daily COVID rates, variant cases, active cases and vaccination rates. Toronto Public Health also releases COVID-19 data based on race and ethnicity, which has shown that Black communities have been disproportionately infected with the virus. Quebec releases industry-specific COVID-19 data which shows the rate of infection spread in certain occupations and detailed information on infections in schools.

Renee Merrifield, B.C. Liberal health critic, said for the NDP “to knowingly hold back this critical information from British Columbians — especially after so many have been asking for it to be released — is a failure of government. This data shines a light on the B.C. communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and it could have been used to educate the public — even though it was readily available, the NDP government kept it hidden from people and refused to share it.”

“Knowing the dire situation here in Surrey, with some neighbourhoods showing the highest positivity rate in the province, the NDP chose to create a system of chaos with vaccine pop-up clinics that were not planned nor able to get vaccines to those who needed them most,” said Stephanie Cadieux, MLA for Surrey South.

Surrey continues to be a COVID-19 hot spot with almost 30 per cent of the province’s cases. Fraser Health on Thursday expanded the number of high-transmission neighbourhoods where people 30 and older can get immunized. They include: Guildford and Cloverdale in Surrey, Willoughby in Langley, the central, east and rural part of Abbotsford, southeast and southwest Burnaby and south Mission.

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Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said as the province struggles to contain outbreaks in hot spot communities, releasing more neighbourhood-specific information could help medical professionals and community advocates respond in a more targeted way, either through diagnostic testing, enhanced contract tracing or expanded vaccine clinics in more accessible locations.

“I think the fundamental concern that I and many others would have is, you didn’t give us these data which are arguably important in refining and optimizing the response to the pandemic,” Conway said. “What else is that you’re not telling me?”

Dr. Baldev Sanghera, a Burnaby family physician who is also part of the South Asian COVID Task Force, said getting this information out to community leaders is crucial as they have the personal connections to build trust and give feedback to provincial health leaders on how to make vaccination registration more accessible.

“Getting data is a huge thing, getting transparent data would be ideal,” said Sanghera, one of the founding directors of PrimeCare Medical Centre. “I think it’s incredibly important to get those messages out to the people in leadership positions. They need to collect as much data about our population so that we can target hotspots, appropriately, with no finger pointing, no disclosure or breach of any privacy or confidentiality, but just helping people to access support so they need.”

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Green Leader Sonia Furstenau has consistently pushed the province to release more COVID-19 data and to start collecting race-based health information which could give a clearer picture of how the virus is disproportionately affecting racialized communities.

“To withhold information at a time like this, when it has so much value in terms of helping build that trust, build that sense of understanding, that is so, so valuable, I am disappointed and I am frustrated,” she said.

Furstenau said the figures should be released publicly and used to better inform public health delivery in communities that are showing vaccine hesitancy.

The figures show that “the area with the highest rates of positivity unfortunately have the lowest rates of vaccination. That’s an upsetting reality. We know this pandemic has hit racialized people, poor people much, much harder,” she said. “Let’s learn from that.”

kderosa@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/katiederosayyj

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