Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix denied that the province is withholding COVID-19 data from the public even as public health officials promised to start releasing neighbourhood-specific information on infections and vaccinations starting this week.
During question period Monday, B.C. Liberal leader Shirley Bond said that only publishing a fraction of data collected by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is “disrespectful and harmful” to communities hit hardest by the virus such as Whalley and Newton in northeastern Surrey. B.C. Green party leader Sonia Furstenau said the government is jeopardizing public trust by not providing them unfiltered COVID data.
“By failing to keep the public fully informed, the government fails to keep the public fully engaged,” Furstenau said. “Substantial data can help promote safe behaviour.”
Horgan said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and the BCCDC have for 15 months been releasing daily information about the transmission of the virus in each of the five health authorities, hospitalization rates and the impact of the virus on pregnant people. He said more information is now available on immunizations because the province is doing more immunizations than at any point in the pandemic.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, we made a decision on this side of the house to allow public health officials to speak directly to British Columbians with the information they needed to keep themselves safe. That approach has served us very, very well,” Horgan said, citing the more than two million British Columbians who have received their first dose of the vaccine.
Health Minister Dix said the information in the 45-page BCCDC documents leaked to Postmedia last week is routinely shared with “more than 100 people who are involved in developing the public health response” in COVID-19 hot spots such as Surrey, which he pointed out has been prioritized for vaccinations through immunizations for front-line workers and people aged 30 and older and 19 high-transmission neighbourhoods.
Starting Wednesday, the BCCDC will release more detailed COVID-19 surveillance data on infection rates, variants of concern and vaccination rates broken down by community health service area, information which was contained in the report leaked last week. However, Henry said community health service area information will not be released in smaller, rural communities where detailed data could reveal people’s private health information.
The province is working on an interactive map so people can look at neighbourhood data broken down by age and sex which will be released in the “coming days,” Henry said during a briefing Monday.
Some are calling for the release of data that the province doesn’t have, Henry said, such as COVID-19 data broken down by race or ethnicity or detailed breakdowns of the number of transmissions in workplaces, schools or daycares.
“We don’t have the type of information that I think everybody would like to have, which is exactly who transmitted to whom in every school and every daycare,” she said. “Unfortunatelyoursurveillancedataislimitedinboththoseareas.”
During question period, Dix said the government has made a “political decision” to support public health officers, implying that anyone asking for more data is not supportive of health officials.
“I think that the provincial health officer is very committed to the idea of informing the public and, in fact, has done so from the beginning of the pandemic through extraordinary efforts,” he said.
Epidemiologists, data scientists and community advocates have said B.C. falls behind other provinces when it comes to releasing COVID-19 data, which could be used to better inform public health measures and vaccination campaigns.
Ontario and Alberta, for example, regularly release neighbourhood-specific figures on daily COVID rates, variant cases, active cases and vaccination rates. Toronto Public Health also releases COVID-19 figures based on race and ethnicity, which has shown that Black communities have been disproportionately infected with the virus. Quebec releases industry-specific COVID-19 figures that show the rate of infection spread in certain occupations and detailed information on infections in schools.
Dr. Baldev Sanghera, a Burnaby family physician who is also part of the South Asian COVID Task Force, said more transparent release of COVID-19 data would help physicians and advocates respond to evidence of areas where COVID transmission is spreading or where vaccine uptake is low. For example, the BCCDC figures show that parts of northwest Surrey including Whalley and Newton had an average of 40 COVID-19 cases a day for every 100,000 people, more than double the rate of most other areas of Metro Vancouver. Despite this, those neighbourhoods, plus Guildford, had a lower vaccination rate.
Sanghera said that rather than vaccine hesitancy in the South Asian community, it could point to a lack of access to vaccination clinics either because of language barriers or uncertainty around the vaccine registration process. The popularity of the pop-up clinics in Surrey and Port Coquitlam showed that people are eager to get the vaccine, he said, but they may not have all the information on how to register or book an appointment through the province’s Get Vaccinated website.
Sanghera said he’d like to see B.C. publish a regularly-updated interactive map where people can see COVID-19 infections by postal code in order to identify hot spots that need to be provided with additional vaccine supply.
“We can send notices directly to those folks with particular postal codes, and give them priority booking,” he said. “There’s ways to do this in a very, very effective manner using the data appropriately using, the technology that we have, but also still maintain the privacy and the confidentiality of individuals.”