Saskatchewan

Sask. privacy commissioner says more detailed COVID-19 data could be released without risking privacy

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner says the government could be giving more information about communities with COVID-19 without risking the privacy of people and patients.

Ron Kruzeniski says he's not concerned individuals will be identified through businesses being named

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski says the province should be naming smaller areas rather than large reasons, as long as an individual can't be identified based on that. (Stefani Langenegger/CBC)

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner says the government could be giving more information about communities with COVID-19 without the risk of compromising patient privacy.

He also said authorities should release as much information as they can, including listing villages or towns where the novel coronavirus is present and the amount of cases in the community — as long as someone couldn't easily be identified, based on those details.

"You could say one person in Regina has COVID-19 and you haven't identified the person, but in a small community of 20 or 30 you may have identified that person," Ron Kruzeniski said.

"So, using smaller units or, as small as possible, is a direction that I think is worth proceeding, provided, each time you analyze it to make sure that you're not identifying an individual."

You certainly could say there's 10 cases in Swift Current and I don't believe you'd be identifying anybody.- Ron Kruzeniski, Information and Privacy commissioner

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist, previously told CBC News people should be told where the virus is so that they don't relax too much and allow it to spread.

"This is not a pandemic that actually can be fought with secrecy and lack of transparency," said Muhajarine. "There is a way to communicate information without actually compromising people's personal privacy."

Too much detail could be problem, commissioner says

According to the province, a person who was likely infectious with COVID-19 visited the Regina Costco on July 6. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Kruzeniski said he has no problems or concerns with the government naming stores or restaurants that someone with COVID-19 has visited prior to being diagnosed, even if specific times are given. 

Recently, the province has taken to naming some businesses in Swift Current and Regina, urging people who were there at the same time as people with COVID-19 to monitor symptoms or get tested. 

"If you say people who are at Costco in a day, there's 500 or a 1,000 people," said Kruzeniski. "You haven't identified a particular individual. 

"And, even possibly, if you said between 4:00 and 5:00, the rest of us couldn't identify who was there."

Kruzeniski says that a public warning which is too specific risks identifying a specific person if there is too much information and detail released.

Communities named when cases are 'sporadic'

The government has long avoided giving a comprehensive list of communities with the virus and corresponding case numbers, citing privacy concerns.

The government's message to the public has been that regardless of case numbers, everyone in the province should be vigilant and take proper precautions at all times.

Last week, the province released a list of 14 rural municipalities and areas with an increased risk of transmission. It included the City of Swift Current. Cypress Regional Hospital then closed its doors to visitors, unless in the case of end of life.

There were 53 combined cases in the southern and central regions of the province at that time, which would rise to 100 in the following days.

"You certainly could say there's 10 cases in Swift Current and I don't believe you'd be identifying anybody," said Kruzeniski. 

Dr. Saqib Shahab, chief medical health officer, says he named Prince Albert as an area of concern on July 7 because cases couldn't be traced and he wanted people to get tested. He told reporters he will continue to use that bar when it comes to listing locations. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, on July 7 asked people in the Prince Albert area to get tested after new cases of the virus emerged.

He said there had been six COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the area, despite there being no increase in community numbers, which he said suggested people were not getting tested — possibly while experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Two weeks later, Shahab said instances of community transmission are the ones he finds most significant. He said the cases in Prince Albert could not be explained and were more noteworthy than a larger outbreak situation, where transmission can be traced. 

Shahab said he doesn't think it's helpful to tell a town of 500 people that there are seven cases present if all of them have self-isolated after a trip and haven't spread it to anyone. 

Rather, he is more likely to notify a city of 10,000 people if there are three or four cases that cannot be attributed to travel, events or a close contact.  

"The sporadic cases still are a source of concern," Shahab told reporters. "So I think that's how we'll have to keep addressing it, not just focusing on the numbers but the settings."

About the Author

Alex Soloducha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.

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