Hamilton

Niagara Region Public Health refuses to share COVID-19 deaths with the public

Ontario's information and privacy commissioner is at odds with Niagara Region Public Health — public health refuses to release the number of local COVID-19 deaths and the commissioner says it should release the information as soon as possible.

Ontario's information and privacy commissioner said 'the public has a right to know'

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for Niagara Region, and Brian Beamish, Ontario's information and privacy commissioner are at odds about Niagara Region Public Health's decision to not publish the number of local COVID-19 deaths. (Submitted by Niagara Region Public Health and CBC News)

Niagara Region Public Health is refusing to release the number of local COVID-19 deaths, saying that victims' privacy trumps the public's right to know how the pandemic is affecting the community.

Ontario's information and privacy commissioner doesn't understand why NRPH is shielding the numbers and wants them released "as soon as possible."

"This information provides critical insights about infection rates and locations — details people need to be aware of so they can take the steps necessary to protect themselves and prevent further spread of the disease," commissioner Brian Beamish told CBC News.

But NRPH said a low number of infected people in the region will make it easy to track down victims.

"When dealing with very small numbers, it can be difficult to maintain anonymity. When someone loses a family member, it's a painful and tragic event, and it's important to ensure that individuals, families and communities aren't stigmatized," Meredith Maxwell, an NRPH spokesperson told CBC News.

Beamish disagrees, pointing out a contradiction.

"I note that Niagara is posting the number of cases in the region. It is difficult to see how posting the number of deaths will lead to the identification of any particular individual," he said.

"The public has a right to know how many coronavirus-related deaths have occurred in their community. If health authorities have this statistical information, they should release it to the public as soon as possible."

Public health authorities in neighbouring Hamilton, Haldimand-Norfolk, Brant and Halton have all been releasing death numbers since the start of the pandemic.

'Give us the numbers, let us deal with them'

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati told CBC News up until this week, NRPH was providing him with local updates on numbers. He said the NRPH told him it didn't see the need to disclose deaths per community.

As he's trying to figure out why he doesn't know the updated numbers for Monday, he is also confused about why the public has no access to them.

"I can't see the rationale of not sharing them," he  said. "Give us the numbers, let us deal with them."

Jim Diodati, mayor of Niagara Falls, said he's confused by Niagara Region Public Health's choice to not share the number of COVID-19 deaths with the public. (Submitted by Jim Diodati)

Diodati's call for the numbers echoes sentiments from Premier Doug Ford last week for more transparency.

"You deserve to see the same data that I see when I'm making decisions. You deserve to know what I know when you're making decisions for yourself, your family and your community," Ford said on Thursday.

Jim Bradley, chair of the Niagara Region, told CBC News NRPH's decision was "not political" and done out of concern for victims' families, stating it would be easy to track someone down because of the low number of infected people.

He added now that there are 149 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area as of Monday at noon, he expects "more data" to be released soon — but there's no word on if deaths will be reported.

"They're now comfortable reporting more data and the region's site will be updated with this data later this week," Bradley said.

Jim Bradley, Niagara region chair, said he thinks the Ontario privacy commissioner comment to release local COVID-19 deaths immediately may influence Niagara Region Public Health. (Jim Ross/The Canadian Press)

Bradley himself didn't have the updated numbers when he spoke to CBC News on Monday afternoon.

He's using the only public information out there, published by Niagara Health, a local hospital network. It shows nine people who tested positive in its hospital network have died, but the numbers may not be the same as what NRPH has and the numbers does not mean COVID-19 was the cause of death in these cases.

Bradley said the response from the Ontario information and privacy commissioner may expedite the rollout of new data.

"That particular ruling, if you want to call it a ruling ... could certainly change their viewpoint as to how they're providing information."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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