We should be able to trust our health authorities to be honest with us

BC has a problem with pandemic data transparency

The data leak exposed that health authorities haven’t been releasing all COVID-19 information. PHOTO: Don Craig / Government of B.C.

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Since BC’s officials instated restrictions, I have been checking my news feed diligently at 3 p.m. each day for COVID-19 case numbers. This helps me keep track of how our province is dealing with the pandemic. 

When new variants were reported and restrictions weren’t clear, I looked for data on neighbourhood case rates and daily vaccination numbers so I could assess how bad the situation was in BC. But with the exception of Prince Edward Island, BC is the only province that, up until early May, was not reporting its case numbers daily. Cases by neighbourhood and daily vaccination numbers have also been kept from the public. I should be able to rely on my government to get this information because it’s what other provinces can expect. Ontario, for example, releases COVID-19 reports every day that are tracked by three variants of concern among different communities. 

Meanwhile, it’s a good day in BC when our case reports are on time, which only makes me more nervous about whether things have gotten worse or better in my city. I want to know if the restrictions and vaccines affect the many different demographics in BC or if the variants of concern are getting worse in certain neighbourhoods. Having my health officials be honest is extremely important, particularly because there is hesitancy about the vaccine and the virus. Knowledge and honesty instill trust in the government’s actions. Quite plainly, as COVID-19 has evolved through variants, our public understanding of it should also evolve beyond “we can do this together” sentiments from our health officials.

BC health officials have attributed their inability to provide more COVID-19 data to a lack of technology, but in internal 45-plus-page reports leaked to the Vancouver Sun on May 6, COVID-19 cases were tracked by neighbourhood-level cases, vaccination data, and variants of concern. That is up to four times more data than is being currently released to the public. Up until recently, residents have not been able to track cases through community-based data. 

Having reaffirming data means that we could have given vulnerable communities more warning to reduce COVID-19 surges. We could assume that multi-generational households would be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. But it was not until data was released for cases on the neighbourhood level that we could confirm this, including some people of South Asian descent in the Delta and Abbotsford areas. And it wasn’t until the data leak that we saw that positivity rates were higher in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in Surrey and that people were less vaccinated in those neighbourhoods. If the province had communicated more in South Asian languages, that important health information could have reached these communities sooner. 

Currently, the sources that I turn to the most for data are news journalists like Justin McElroy, who break down the briefings in charts that help contextualize our progress compared to the rest of Canada. But I shouldn’t have to depend on external news sources for information regarding my health. I should be able to rely on my government to release the same level of information that other provinces are releasing. The kicker is that John Horgan has claimed since November that BC is “just as transparent as any jurisdiction in North America,” which was plainly untrue then. 

As of writing this article, BCCDC has a new dashboard where much more detailed information about vaccines and positivity rates in community health areas is provided. But whether BC will consistently provide this level of information is uncertain, especially after months of the partial (and often late) information that I have come to expect every weekday.