B.C. health officials defend COVID-19 data practices, promise more information after document leak
VANCOUVER -- B.C.'s top doctor is defending her office's handling of COVID-19 data in the wake of leaked documents showing considerably more information than the province has previously released.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and deputy provincial health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson addressed the leaked data, published Thursday by the Vancouver Sun, in a quickly organized news conference Friday afternoon.
The health officials described the reports as "public health surveillance" data, which they said is used primarily to inform decision-making. The documents contain details about case counts and vaccination numbers at the neighbourhood level, which has never been publicized in B.C., though similar data is regularly updated on websites for the Toronto and Edmonton areas, for example.
Gustafson told reporters the province makes "as much of the data as is possible" available publicly, but B.C. has typically released less-detailed reports on the location of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations and test-positivity rates than other provinces do.
“That word ‘leak,’ the deck that was shared with you is shared with a broad range of people and we always assume it might become public, so I just want to make sure we don’t mischaracterize it,” said Gustafson. “It wasn’t yet of the validation or the standard that we were necessarily ready to put it out proactively.”
None of the pages had any notations suggesting the report was a draft, and several pages were stamped with the message, “For authorized internal public health use only – not for public distribution,” making clear the documents were, in fact, leaked. Those pages contain maps showing exceptionally high infection rates in Surrey neighbourhoods like Bridgeview, Newton and Surrey City Centre, while vaccination rates in those areas are lower than in surrounding communities.
Asked whether B.C. will be releasing the more-detailed information from the leaked data going forward, Henry insisted that the majority of the data shown in the leaked reports is already released, albeit not in the same format. Gustafson added the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has limited staff with big workloads, suggesting they don’t have time for various presentations of the data.
When asked why they wouldn’t just publish the report already prepared for public health policymakers, Henry and Gustafson said they would consider how to present future information based on the level of interest.
CTV News asked whether they would commit to providing the same level of detail contained in the leaked report in the future, and Gustafson emphatically answered: “Yes.”
“It’s a fairly simple answer,” she added.
The provincial health officer cited monthly modelling presentations as an example of the province reporting health data with proper context, rather than releasing reports that are intended primarily for internal discussion.
Experts and community advocates call for more information
Health officials in B.C. have consistently resisted providing more detailed information, insisting they don’t want to stigmatize communities and expose them to abuse. While there have been some examples of racism and blame, in many cases it’s community advocates who are calling for more information to be shared.
"We need to have more collaboration around data that's clear and transparent so that we can work together,” said Dr. Baldev Sanghera, a family physician and a member of the South Asian COVID Task Force.
“We need leadership to understand there's people at the bottom, boots on the ground that can help and inform and we're more than happy to step up," said Sanghera.
The task force is trying to help disseminate information about vaccines and public health measures throughout the community, including to people who don’t consume traditional media and may have language barriers and other issues, which can contribute to disease transmission and low vaccination rates.
"I can tell you that there's low levels of hesitancy out there and they want the vaccine,” said Sanghera. “It's to do with accessibility and also possibly having information to get registered and the ability to get registered. Let's get to where people are, meet them there, we have to come down from our pedestals. Community care can't be done top down, community care has to be provided from the ground up."
One of the province’s top data and infectious disease modellers echoed those sentiments, arguing the public has a right to know about COVID-19 cases and vaccine uptake where they live.
"It's public data,” said Caroline Colijn, SFU professor and Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health.
“Public health are stewards of those data, but it's citizens who were tested and have their addresses taken,” Colijn said. “So, rather than talking about internal documents, maybe there's a broader conversation to be had about data-sharing for the public."
Colijn is part of a group of independent scientists, academics and data modellers who’ve been calling for more information to help with their advice to government and predictions about where the pandemic is going and when it might be safe to reopen.
"More eyes on the data can help us learn more," she said. "There are GPs, nurses, community leaders, faith leaders, those individuals – if they see low vaccination rates in their communities – may be able to influence that; or high transmission, they may be able to say, ‘Look out.’"
Political consideration behind data gaps?
The NDP government has been repeatedly criticized for muddled messaging and secrecy around information, and observers say that’s part of the political strategy to characterize the pandemic the way government wants it to be seen, even though it hasn’t always been successful.
"It’s really important for this government to control information,” said Alex Shiff, senior political strategist and communications consultant for the public relations firm Navigator.
“It's part of a larger communications strategy that allows them to drive the narrative that they want to tell and keep them from having to act defensively.”
He pointed out that when similar data was released in Ontario showing hotspot communities had less access to vaccines, it forced government into action. British Columbia’s government has only made changes to policy when public pressure reaches a fever pitch, he noted, citing the surprise implementation of a mask policy despite weeks of resistance from Henry.
"What the government has done is shown British Columbians that they don't trust us to have access to the same information that they do,” he said. “It's paternalistic. It's, frankly, insulting, and British Columbians deserve to be treated like adults."
Both Henry and Gustafson told reporters the province is working on adding data from "community health service areas" - geographic units that are often smaller than the local health areas B.C. has typically reported - to the information they release regularly.
The pair didn't give a precise timeframe for when that data would be released, but said the BCCDC is working to add it in the coming weeks.
The promised data would include information on cases and vaccination rates at the community health service area level, Henry and Gustafson said, noting the surveillance information they collect is used by senior public health officials for decision-making.
But Colijn suggested it’s in their best interest to be more transparent, and that they should take to heart the attention the leaked reports generated as the public undertakes its own decision-making on a daily basis.
"The public is being asked to make a lot of private decisions that impact transmission around social gatherings and contacts and keeping contact low,” she said. “With good information, the public can continue making good decisions and can understand the rationale."