Saskatoon

Saskatchewan's Information Commissioner joins chorus pressing government to release COVID-19 data

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner says the provincial government is wrong to withhold vital statistics on COVID-19 risk.

Officials won't say how many COVID-19 hospital patients had other medical conditions

In many regions around the world, people with pre-existing medical conditions account for more than 90 per cent of COVID-19 hospitalizations. The Saskatchewan government is declining to release similar statistics. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner says the provincial government is wrong to withhold vital statistics on COVID-19 risk.

"We're in the middle of a pandemic," Ron Kruzeniski said in an interview Thursday. "We have the public with lots of concerns and I think it's important for decision makers to build trust. You build trust by providing more information."

Kruzeniski joins the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the Opposition NDP and health information experts calling for immediate release of the data.

Other regions around the world have released detailed statistics on risk. Age is a big factor in coronavirus complications and death, but pre-existing medical conditions pose an equal danger.

According to the British government, 90 per cent of its people hospitalized with COVID-19 had other medical conditions.
In New York City it was 94 per cent, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. In Italy, 97 per cent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 had another medical condition.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the government needs to be more transparent with COVID-19 information. (Alexis Lalement/Radio-Canada)

In some cases, diabetes is the biggest risk factor. In others, heart conditions, cancer, lung problems or obesity played a large role.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority declined a request for this data. An official said they are tracking these pre-existing medical conditions, but said it will not be released for privacy reasons. The official declined to say who made the decision.

Faith Rowland of Diabetes Canada's Saskatchewan branch said most people have practiced good hygeine and distancing, but some are getting 'cocky' now that the weather is improving. (submitted by Faith Rowland)

Kruzeniski and others said individual privacy would not be violated because this data would not reveal anyone's name, community or even gender.

"I get worried about the shield of privacy being overused," he said.

Jason Woywada, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said this is essential information as Saskatchewan moves to reopen its economy and society. He said local data could help a vulnerable person decide whether to go for a massage or to a family barbecue.

"It's really important that during this crisis that transparency is maintained. It's precisely this kind of information that is required to prevent misinformation from spreading out there," Woywada said.

Kruzeniski, Woywada and others said this is essential information as Saskatchewan moves to reopen its economy and society. They said local data could help a vulnerable person decide whether to go for a massage or to a family barbecue.

NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said this information should be released.

"I think the default should be giving people more information, trusting Saskatchewan people to properly use the information that's given to them. That's how people make good decisions," Meili said.

"The more we know what's happening in Saskatchewan, the easier it will be to give people clear guidance."

There also appeared to be confusion over how many Saskatchewan people have been hospitalized with COVID-19. During a news conference last Friday, government officials pegged the number at 25. That same day, however, a government official emailed Meili to say there were 43.

A government official responded Thursday. The official said the smaller figure referred to the number of people hospitalized. The larger figure represented total hospitalizations, meaning some people were counted twice if they were readmitted.

Meili said this is all part of a troubling pattern of secrecy and miscommunication. He noted it took days before an outbreak in the Lloydminster hospital was made public.

Meili said he appreciated the apology of Health Minister Jim Reiter and the recent pledge from Premier Scott Moe to be transparent. He said this is their chance to show they were sincere, and release this information.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron says the government should release numbers on people with other medical connections who have suffered COVID-19 complications. (CBC)

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron agreed. With high rates of diabetes in First Nations people, and an outbreak some northern communities, residents and local leaders need to know the numbers, he said.

"There's no sense in why certain information is not relayed or shared with everybody," Cameron said. "I mean, we're all here together. We've heard the term, 'We're all in this together.'  Well, prove it. Prove it. Let's share information."

Faith Rowland of Diabetes Canada's Saskatchewan branch said the organization is doing all it can to educate the public.
She said most diabetics are being extremely careful, but the behaviour of some others has her worried.

"We came off strong at the start with the isolating and shutting things down but I think we maybe got a bit cocky when the numbers came down nicely," she said. "With the warmer weather, everybody's anxious to be out and about. I think that even though intellectually we know, there's a human tendency to want to just get back to normal and not take it as seriously as we should."

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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