Why isn't MLHU reporting all the COVID-19 numbers? Ontario's privacy commissioner is concerned

Ontario’s privacy commissioner says he’s concerned about an inconsistency in the way public health units in Ontario are reporting on the presence of COVID-19 in Ontario’s long-term care facilities.

‘I don’t think this is a time where we should be keeping information from people,’ says Brian Beamish

Brian Beamish, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, says he's concerned about a lack of uniformity in the reporting of COVID-19 cases in long-term care homes by public health units in the province. The public, he says, has a right to know when residents have tested positive. (CBC)

Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner says he's concerned about an inconsistency in the way public health units in Ontario are reporting on the presence of COVID-19 in Ontario's long-term care facilities.

"What worries me a bit is that we seem to be developing a patchwork across the province … in the middle of a public health emergency," Brian Beamish told CBC's London Morning on Friday.

Beamish was responding to concerns raised by CBC that the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) has failed to release a daily breakdown, detailing how many patients and staff are infected in each seniors' facility.

"I believe that the residents of those homes, their families, and workers in those homes have a right to know with some assurance if there has been a positive test."

Beamish stressed that he's not calling for the release of private information.

"I want to be clear here; we're not talking about naming individuals. We're simply talking about providing accurate information on whether an individual -- either a resident or a staff person -- has tested positive, and a sense of how many people have tested positive. Is it an isolated incident, or is it widespread?"

Health units in other communities, such as Windsor and Waterloo, are providing this type of information daily. Beamish said positive test numbers are being widely reported in Toronto, as well.

Health unit's defence

The medical oficer of health for the MLHU, Dr. Chris Mackie, defended his decision not to release COVID-19 details in each long-term care facility in an interview with CBC earlier this week.

"You can imagine that in this current environment we're doing a lot of reporting of a lot of different numbers, and we don't necessarily have time to update every single number every day, given how much work we're doing to actually prevent cases and prevent the spread of infections."

Mackie added that families are welcome to gather information about COVID-19 cases directly from long-term care homes.

"We would love to be able to provide all information to everyone. Our focus is really on doing that when it's going to make a difference to the health of the public."

Beamish said he didn't want to "second-guess" Mackie on the workload issue.

Privacy 'no excuse'

"My main concern was I was seeing public health units using privacy as a reason for not disclosing this information," said Beamish, adding he has reassured health units that privacy is not a barrier to releasing details about COVID-19 cases.

He's concerned about a lack of uniformity in the reporting across the province. He pointed to an interactive map on the Toronto Star website that shows distinct gaps of information. It shows some parts of the province are providing detailed information, while others have very little information.

"I don't think this is a time where we should be keeping information from people. I think this is a time where the general community are interested in it, and they do have a right to know."