Dozens dead, hundreds infected, but health authorities fight to conceal B.C. hospital outbreak findings
A CTV News investigation into COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals in the Lower Mainland has resulted in scant information from health authorities, which have fought disclosure even though hundreds of patients and staff have contracted the virus in hospital and dozens have died as a result.
For months, multiple attempts to obtain information and documentation around investigations, responses and fallout from COVID-19 outbreaks in Lower Mainland hospitals have been met with stonewalling, redactions and insistence that no such documentation exists, even though lives were lost.
Fraser Health fought a months-long battle with a freedom of information request, ultimately resulting in 79 pages of written documentation, of which 55 pages’ worth were redacted. Every page is marked “Confidential,” and some say “Confidential Do Not Distribute.”
Meanwhile, a Vancouver Coastal Health privacy officer insisted that – despite the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks taking place in that health authority – there was “no documentation” to provide under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. A public health officer for VCH pointed out the BCCDC does not require them to produce a report.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner may ultimately decide on whether a semantic decision about what constitutes a “report” should’ve been produced under the Information and Privacy Act, which compels public bodies to produce information. The possibility that there is no paperwork would raise other issues around documenting viral transmission and mitigation efforts in lethal outbreaks during a pandemic.
Fraser Health cited three sections of the act in redacting the large swathes of information: s. 22, pertaining to personal information of staff and patients, but also s. 13, “information that would reveal advice or recommendations developed by or for a public body or a minister,” and s. 17, “disclosure harmful to the financial or economic interests of a public body.”
RECURRING PROBLEMS IN EARLY OUTBREAKS
CTV News filed a freedom of information request after a Fraser Health communications staffer directed us to obtain the information that way, while Vancouver Coastal Health’s communications department never provided the information, despite several requests.
In the few pages that contain information, Fraser Health’s outbreak reports describe common issues in outbreaks at Abbotsford Regional, Burnaby, Delta and Surrey Memorial hospitals. Among these issues were patients who were unknowingly COVID-positive moved between units, staff who didn’t distance or wear masks outside of patient treatment areas, issues with clutter and hygiene, questionable adherence to personal protective equipment rules and staff who were working while infectious.
“Whether all (health-care worker) cases were infected on (the) outbreak units or elsewhere in the site and in what direction transmission occurred (patient-to-staff, staff-to-patient, staff-to-staff) cannot be determined,” say most of the reports, with most adding: “Transmission may have occurred through direct contact between cases or through contact with a contaminated environment.”
While the outbreak report writers encouraged a low threshold for testing staff and patients, infection control specialists who investigated the documented outbreaks did not proactively test everyone in the hospital and instead screened for symptoms; spot-testing random people.
The outbreak at Delta Hospital was particularly noteworthy because the unnamed unit where the infections took place “experienced a high bioburden of SARS-CoV-2 during the outbreak.”
“Air flow measurements found the actual air changes per hour (ACH) to be below the design expectations,” the report reads. “International experience with COVID-19 and observations of super-spreading events in various settings suggest crowding and poor air flow may contribute to outbreaks.”
This week, CTV News asked to speak with senior health officials at both health authorities to find out how investigations were conducted, what measures were taken in the first 24 hours, what recommendations were made and if they were implemented. Neither health authority gave an interview, nor a written statement.
SWIFT DENUNCIATION OF GOVERNMENT SECRECY
The executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association was taken aback by the stonewalling from health authorities.
“There shouldn't be anything that they're afraid of disclosing to the public here,” said Jason Woywada. “One of the primary elements in a health-care system is providing assurance to the patient that they're going to be treated appropriately – and that means someone knows before they go to an ER or a hospital that they aren't going to get sicker by going there – that they're not going to go in with a broken arm and out with COVID-19.”
He said the public needs to know that efforts are being made to quash the spread of the virus.
“Making sure that communication is undertaken and there's transparency in terms of what changes have taken place is really important and that is something we'd hope we would see," said Woywada.
The official opposition echoed those sentiments and added that the public could be reluctant to seek medical attention if government isn’t clear about what lessons are being learned to keep people safe from getting COVID-19 in hospital.
"I think it's incumbent on health authorities to provide us with information and data that actually backs up their protocol, their procedures they have in place,” said Liberal leader Shirley Bond. “It is a pattern that has developed with this government: We continue to see a reluctance to be transparent. It's disappointing and frankly it should've been fixed long ago."
MULTIPLE ACUTE CARE OUTBREAKS ANNOUNCED
The two health authorities have declared dozens of outbreaks at hospitals, where staff or patients who’d been virus-free contracted COVID-19. Virtually every hospital in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley has had at least one outbreak, with hundreds infected and dozens dead.
Among the worst:
- Burnaby General Hospital: a dozen people died and more than 100 were infected at the facility last year
- Lions Gate Hospital: three outbreaks, with 52 people infected and at least 16 dead in the last two
- Surrey Memorial Hospital: a three-month-long outbreak starting Nov. 18 saw 125 people infected on site, 13 of whom died
On their websites, the health authorities only list ongoing or recent outbreaks, removing old ones after they’ve ended. Currently, Fraser Health has one at Mission Memorial Hospital, which has had at least one previous outbreak.
Woywada is urging the government to be proactive with information on something as vital as our hospital system, which he maintains is in government’s best interests.
“Trying to hide behind redacted documents and all these other elements and not getting the information out there as quickly as possible can erode trust in public institutions,” he said. “That's ultimately why we're advocating for more transparency. I would hope they would re-examine that."