British Columbia

Vancouver Coastal Health shirks B.C.'s policy to publish COVID-19 school exposure events

Now that class is back in session, new cases of COVID-19 have begun to pop up at schools across the province. But Vancouver Coastal Health is not publicly reporting as much as B.C.'s other four health authorities.

Health region says it only publishes exposures if it can't directly notify everyone involved

COVID-19 signs posted at John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson)

UPDATE, Sept. 24: On Thursday, Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry released a joint statement saying when there has been COVID-19 exposure to students or staff in a school setting, health officials will work with school administrators to quickly send an email and letter to notify the staff and students (or their parents) identified as contacts.  All notifications to school administrators  including school exposure and outbreaks  will be posted to the VCH school exposure web page at http://www.vch.ca/covid-19/school-exposures.

Now that class is back in session, new cases of COVID-19 have begun to pop up at schools across the province.

To find out which schools have reported exposure events, all you have to do is go to your region's public health website, where a list is regularly updated.

Unless you live in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

That's because Vancouver Coastal Health has not been following the same policy for notifying the public when there's a COVID-19 exposure event within a school. Vancouver Coastal Health covers Vancouver, Richmond, the North Shore and Coast Garibaldi, Sea-to-Sky, Sunshine Coast, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.

The other health authorities — Interior Health, Island Health, Fraser Health and Northern Health — have all stated they will update their online school exposures list with information on possible exposures within schools.

"We are providing this information so school staff, students and parents can be assured that public health is following up in their community and exposure risks are being mitigated to the best of our ability," the four authorities say on their individual websites.

Vancouver Coastal Health has the same information written on its school exposures page, but as of Wednesday it only lists one exposure event — at Sentinel Secondary in West Vancouver — even though it confirmed with CBC News that it has seen more than one case in schools.

"We are aware of and will continue to see cases of COVID-19 occurring in staff and students," the authority wrote Sunday in an email.

Protocol explained

Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical officer said the health authority is following the same protocols it has applied to workplaces for months.

Dr. Patricia Daly said contact tracers will notify anyone in a school setting who has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, like they would when a COVID-19 case is discovered at a workplace.

However, Daly said an exposure notification is only posted on the Vancouver Coastal Health website if there is the need for broader communication.

"Not every case of of COVID-19 in a school-age student, or in a staff person who works in a school, will necessarily lead to a posting on that webpage because there may not have been an exposure in a school setting that requires that kind of posting," said Daly on CBC's The Early Edition on Wednesday.

Provincewide approach

At her Monday COVID-19 health update, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there is one provincewide publication approach for COVID-19 exposures in the province. However, she believes there has been a miscommunication with her colleagues at Vancouver Coastal Health.

"We expect that Vancouver Coastal would adhere to what everyone else is doing, as well as our provincial standard," she said.

Cases in schools

Since students returned to classrooms about two weeks ago, there have been at least 20 COVID-19 exposures reported by health authorities and schools.

There have also been unconfirmed reports of cases at two West Vancouver schools, one Vancouver school and one Richmond school, all within the Vancouver Coastal Health region — but you won't find that information listed on their website.

A physical distancing sign is pictured outside of Hastings Elementary prior to the first day of school Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver Coastal Health said in a statement that when it comes to confirmed cases in schools or other settings, it notifies all people exposed in the most direct manner.

"This is more effective than public notifications and respects patient confidentiality," it wrote in a statement.

"When we aren't able to directly reach all people who may have been exposed in a timely manner, we use other means, including a letter or public notification."

Vancouver district PAC calls for transparency

But that's not sitting right with all families in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

"I want to see it posted, sooner rather than later," said Gordon Lau, chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council.

Lau, who has two children in Vancouver's public education system, says he has no doubt that VCH is properly notifying everyone directly exposed. But he says it's important that the information is posted to help build public trust in the health authority.

As well, he says it allows parents to stay informed.

"By allowing parents to see what is happening at the district level, we can better see what's happening in the big picture and assess for our own families what the level of risk is in our community," he said.

"When we see the absence of information on VCH's website it is honestly disappointing and we are unable to do that assessment and understand exactly what is happening in our schools and we're unable to make the choices we need to make for our families."

With files from Cory Correia

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now