British Columbia

Health authorities in B.C. have been withholding detailed COVID-19 data from public, leaked reports show

Health officials in B.C. have been withholding detailed data from the public around COVID-19 case counts and neighbourhood-level vaccinations, which are outlined in two leaked reports from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

B.C. Centre for Disease Control says attitude toward release of geographical data might now be 'changing'

People line up to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at an immunization clinic in Surrey, B.C., on March 24. Leaked reports from the B.C. Centre Disease Control showed the test positivity rate in many parts of the city was higher than 20 per cent last week. That information wasn't released to the public. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Health officials in B.C. have been withholding detailed data from the public around COVID-19 case counts and neighbourhood-level vaccinations, which are outlined in two leaked reports from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).

The reports, first published by The Vancouver Suncontain maps that show how cases are distributed across the province by neighbourhood, in far more detail than has been released to date. The documents show which areas have the highest test positivity rates and whether people in those hot spots are being vaccinated. 

The reports, which are four times as long as those made public, also contain a deeper breakdown on variants of concern and note the risk to B.C. as Alberta grapples with the highest case rate in the country.

The BCCDC has refused to make such data public, even as transmission in B.C. accelerated to record levels during the second and third waves of the pandemic.

CBC News asked officials for more geographical data more than two weeks ago and followed up nine times, but officials would not respond.

Read one of the leaked reports below: 

On Friday afternoon Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Deputy Health Officer Dr. Reka Gustafson held a last-minute media availability in response to questions about the leaked document.

During the nearly hour-long press conference, Gustafson said the document release should not be characterized as a leak, saying the document was a draft and that it was "shared with a broad range of people, with the assumption other people might see it."

Henry maintained that B.C. releases almost all of the information in the report that was made public. However, B.C. has never released a number of data points in the documents including, for example, information on COVID-19 cases by community health service area.

Gustafson also said the BCCDC website provides information including positivity rates per neighbourhood, or local health area, though that information has never been released to the public. 

Henry admitted B.C. has struggled with publishing data because of ongoing IT issues.

"We don't actually have systems to support the same consistent collection of the same data over time," she said.

"We are releasing more than what other provinces are releasing."

The kind of information leaked in the reports is easily available to the public online in other jurisdictions across Canada.

In Toronto, neighbourhood-level case and vaccination data is made public regularly, along with breakdowns by age, income and ethnicity. A similar amount of data is available in parts of Alberta, Quebec and Manitoba.

Epidemiologists, researchers, journalists and residents have been requesting more data for months, eager to understand the movement and dynamics of the virus affecting their lives and endangering their loved ones.

B.C. health officials have long maintained they do not release more detailed data on COVID-19 to avoid stigmatizing communities and areas where case counts are high.

But community advocates and researchers alike have long been advocating for the province to be more transparent about where and how the virus is spreading.

Asked whether B.C. health officials have been "paternalistic" in their approach to releasing data, Henry said the province aims to "[find] that balance."

"We have been very open from the very beginning where we've presented as much as we could. People always want more, unless you're the one potentially at risk," she said.

BCCDC says attitude towards data changing

In the wake of the leak, a medical director with the BCCDC told CBC on Friday that the centre's attitude toward the release of geographical data might now be changing.

"That has been a longstanding discussion at various tables and I believe the tide is probably changing in that area," Monika Naus, medical director of the BCCDC's communicable diseases and immunization service, said on CBC's The Early Edition.

"But historically, concerns have been about the risk of identification or, potentially, stigmatisation of certain populations.

"It's a benefit-risk assessment. I'm sure that the Ministry of Health and others have been buried deep in those conversations about [what] level of data to release."

Naus agreed public transparency has helped other jurisdictions determine how to confront outbreaks, to a degree of success.

"I think, probably, that's the case. That's why I mentioned, I think the tide is changing on this," said Naus, noting she has not previously "been at the table" where decisions on data have been made.

"I think different things are done in different circumstances, but you raise a good point about the importance of being able to make a risk assessment based on the circulation of COVID in your own community."

With files from The Early Edition

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