British Columbia

COVID-19 data diggers — and doubters — call for clearer picture in B.C.

There's a growing push for B.C. to collect and share more detailed data about COVID-19 positive hotspots.

Data expert says it’s dangerous to withhold numbers needed for a better understanding of what's happening

Liberty Craig of West Vancouver with her seven-year-old. Three of her five family members tested positive for COVID-19 after an exposure to the virus affected a Grade 2 cohort at Caulfeild Elementary. (Liberty Craig)

There's a growing push for B.C. to collect and share more detailed data about COVID-19 positive hotspots.

Last week, hundreds of parents called on the provincial health officer to divulge more data so that people can make informed decisions as a new wave of infections hits the province.

This week, epidemiologists, data analysts and former federal health minister and Toronto doctor Jane Philpott called for "radical transparency" around Canadian COVID data.

In B.C., health data is often released reluctantly to protect people's privacy. But the result,  argue critics, is a muddy picture.

Parents say it's often unclear how many schools have COVID "clusters" or students who have tested positive.

West Vancouver parent Liberty Craig decided to speak out, when, she says, her trust was shaken by a lack of transparency around a COVID exposure at her child's school.

Craig is finishing a 16-day quarantine in her basement.

She and two of her three children (in Grade 2 and Grade 9) tested positive for COVID-19 after Caulfeild Elementary School sent home a notice about an exposure on Sept. 24. 

They were not told to stay home, but they did until they were tested.

'This thing can turn on a dime'

Craig said that she was "shocked, scared and angry" that there wasn't an immediate quarantine of all involved.

"We could have infected a lot of other people," she said.

When students headed back to school this September, parental anxiety spiked as teachers shifted to in-class learning with larger class sizes than the previous return in June, when only a third of students came back. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"You are scared because you know this thing can turn on a dime," added Craig.

Parents say that "cluster" infected nine in-the school and 18 people in total, including siblings, parents and a grandmother.

Craig said one girl was in hospital for four days.

As per provincial policy, Vancouver Coastal Health won't confirm specific numbers or identify which cohort was exposed.

Last week, Caulfeild parents spearheaded an open letter to B.C's provincial health officer that 2,900 people have now signed, urging an improved strategy for responding to positive COVID-19 cases in schools. Others are feeding information to COVID Schools Canada, a citizen-run data tracker, that identifies schools with clusters or outbreaks.

Jens von Bergmann agrees with the parents' push.

He runs an analytics company and has been noticing a trend in the data since the pandemic began.

He says B.C. is releasing less data for "privacy" reasons. For example, he says, at some point B.C. stopped reporting the number of health-care workers infected with COVID-19.

Lack of transparency breeds 'mistrust'

He said that Public Health Canada is no longer getting this information from B.C.

"In B.C., we have a very different approach where essentially we give out no information or only what we have to," said von Bergmann.

He says he wants to see more transparency to avoid mistakes made during the SARS outbreak.

The release of public health data is always a balance between safety and privacy, he says.

But countries such as Taiwan and Singapore are more open than this province. Data released in those countries shows the path of transmission.

B.C.'s health minister says the province intends to raise its COVID-19 testing capacity from 8,000 — where it is now — to 20,000 people a day to accomodate cold and flu season. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

 In B.C., health officials were at first reluctant to release any information on school exposures, until public outcry forced the issue, said von Bergmann.

"What happens is this breeds a lot of mistrust," he said. "When these things happen — that can be really dangerous."

Some — including Alberta's health authorities — would call a situation similar to Caulfeild Elementary — a clear outbreak.

But in B.C., health officials said last week that contact tracing was working well and there were no school outbreaks.

"An outbreak is when the public health officer says it is an outbreak. There's no real criteria," said von Bergmann.

Provincial health officials in B.C. have defined an outbreak in a school setting as when there is ongoing transmission, and health authorities are not clear who has been transmitting to whom.

But Bergmann says he wants to see B.C. both track and share more granular data.

For example, CBC recently learned there were at least three positive COVID-19 cases on the Disney TV production A Million Little Things.  But there is no tally available of the number of positive cases in the industry that's doing up to 32,000 private COVID tests per week.

The Ministry of Health says that all tests are reported on the daily dashboard and all positive cases would be included in case counts.

If all private preventative tests are folded into daily testing totals, von Bergmann say that would skew the positivity rate.

The provincial health officer "isn't even tracking school exposures by teachers, students and staff. They don't even have that data internally. This is wild. Despite this, they make naive causal claims about the effects of return to school," he wrote on Twitter.

He said there is also a renewed call for a go-to country-wide database with baseline standards of collection, something, he said, was called for after SARS but never put in place.

CBC has reached out the Ministry of Health for information and is awaiting a response.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on B.C.'s latest COVID-19 modelling on Oct. 5, 2020. (Mike McArthur/CBC)


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.


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