British Columbia

Downtown Eastside organizations pushed for COVID-19 data transparency — and then cases surged

In September, a group of service providers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside formally asked the B.C. government for a number of changes in how they dealt with the pandemic. For the most part, the government declined to act on their requests — and in the next month, COVID-19 cases in the local health area surged to levels three to six times higher than the rest of Vancouver.

'I just think transparency is a better option than everybody wondering what the hell is going on'

A sign promoting physical distancing stands near the Pennsylvania Hotel in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In September, a group of service providers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside formally asked the B.C. government for a number of changes in how they dealt with the pandemic in the province's most marginalized neighbourhood, including greater case transparency and faster testing. 

For the most part, the government declined to act on their requests — and in the next month, COVID-19 cases in the local health area surged to levels three to six times higher than the rest of Vancouver.

"This community requires a unique and more robust response," said Janice Abbott, CEO of the Atira Women's Resource Society.

Atira was one of several organizations that signed two letters to the Ministry of Health and Dr. Bonnie Henry in September and October, along with the WISH Drop In Centre Society and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.

Around 20 other groups — including the Pivot Legal Society and the Union Gospel Mission — signed one letter, but not both. 

Among the requests in both letters were:

  • An additional mobile testing van available for DTES residents that didn't require a referral from a service provider in order to get a test.
  • Transparent information about the exact number of cases in the DTES, along with their locations.
  • Expanded protocols and access to space for people who tested positive and required self-isolation.

No major changes

The letter was provided to CBC News by one of the signatories, who said to date many of the requests have not been met. 

"I'm back and forth," said Abbott, who said that Vancouver Coastal Health has responded quickly to testing requests in identified buildings, and that she struggled with the stigma that could come with highlighting COVID-19 hotspots. 

But Abbott now believes transparent information about cases would cause more good than harm. She said an improved plan for ensuring self-isolation of positive cases also hasn't happened yet, and worried that it was helping to cause the spread of the virus.

"People are better able to make informed decisions about keeping themselves healthy if they have information," she said.

"It's a challenge [here] because we were waiting … for significant transmission last March, April, May. That didn't happen. And so I worry that because it didn't happen then, people are feeling somewhat insulated from it. And that's not the case right now."

While the government did reply to the letter, it did not commit to any further changes. 

"We recognize the profound challenges service providers have had in keeping their staff safe and healthy while continuing to provide the essential services needed by some of our most vulnerable community members," wrote Dr. Althea Hayden, Medical Health Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health. 

1 per cent of people in DTES local health area have had COVID-19

While the government doesn't provide timely information on COVID-19 cases per neighbourhood, they do provide the total number of cases in each of the province's local health areas once a month. 

The figures for October were released last week. They showed 276 confirmed cases for "Vancouver Centre North" — a small area comprising of the Downtown Eastside, Gastown, Strathcona and Grandview-Woodland. 

That works out to 42 cases per 10,000 residents, while the number for Vancouver's five other health areas were between 7 and 17.

All told, the area has the highest per capita rate of total COVID-19 cases for any of the 89 local health regions in the province, with more than one per cent of residents having a confirmed case.

The government was asked by CBC News if they wished to provide further context to their response to the letters, but did not respond.  

For her part, Abbott hopes more changes are coming. 

"I just think transparency is a better option than everybody wondering what the hell is going on."

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