Releasing information about COVID-19 infections a 'balancing act,' Sudbury health unit says

The Sudbury health unit is scaling back the amount of information it releases on people who test positive for COVID-19.

Privacy at forefront as questions mount about sources of infection

Health Sciences North is testing possible COVID-19 cases at an assessment centre its set up at its research facility on Walford Road in Sudbury. (Erik White/CBC)

Some health units in northeastern Ontario are scaling back the amount of information released on people who test positive for COVID-19.

Since the pandemic broke, and reports of COVID-19 infections began to climb, Public Health Sudbury & Districts posted an age range and the gender of people who contracted the virus.

Now, only information being released is how the person got the virus, along with their current status. 

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health with the health unit, said it's a decision that respects the public's privacy.

"We're concerned that with the requirement of schools to report on cases within the schools, that there could be a linkage of that information and the potential for the ability to identify individuals," Sutcliffe said.

"We are still absolutely gathering that information in a group or aggregate way so that we can assess trends, but not on individuals."

The health unit for the Timmins-area is also restricting the age information it releases on people who test positive for COVID-19.

Dr. Lianne Catton, medical officer of health for the Porcupine Health Unit, said it's important to strike a balance between what the public needs to know and the public's expectation of privacy.

"We are expanding, sort of broadening our age ranges that we're reporting to instead of 10 year range, looking at more 20 year ranges," Catton said. 

"That change is likewise being done to really try and protect privacy and information as much as possible and respect people's confidentiality in small towns where we do still see sort of stigma and potential ways for people to identify individuals who are cases."

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe is the Medical Officer of Health with Public Health Sudbury and Districts. (Submitted by Public Health Sudbury and District)

Sutcliffe said it was a "balancing act" when it came to public reporting. She added if the public needs to know, the information will be reported.

"It comes down to balancing the rights, the trust, the privacy of an individual's health information, not just personal information, but health information with transparency and the needs of that community," Sutcliffe said. 

"If there was a need for the public to know about a gathering and a risk associated with a gathering, public health would have released information," Sutcliffe said.

"So these are all circumstances, and lots of rumors about different circumstances. I understand that."

"But it's not a right to know out of curiosity," she said. "It's a right to know because there may be measures they need to take to protect themselves." 


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