Information about the number of COVID-19 cases in Abbotsford and other municipalities poses a danger to the public, the Provincial Health Services Authority says. (Photo: Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News)

Information about the number of COVID-19 cases in Abbotsford and other municipalities poses a danger to the public, the Provincial Health Services Authority says. (Photo: Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News)

More city-level COVID-19 data would jeopardize public health, B.C. provincial health agency says

Agency refuses to release weekly COVID-19 case counts, citing privacy and public health concerns

The health of B.C. residents would be jeopardized if it provided more data about how COVID-19 was affecting individual cities, according to the provincial health agency responsible for the BC Centre for Disease Control.

The mayors of several Fraser Valley municipalities have written the province, saying better city-level data would help municipalities better respond to the pandemic.

But the Provincial Health Services Authority has justified redacting city-specific data in documents released to The News by saying the information could threaten someone’s “safety or mental or physical health” if it was made public. The province also suggests individual’s privacy could be compromised by the release of city-level data – even for those municipalities with hundreds of cases.

Last month, The News filed a freedom of information request more granular data on how COVID-19 is affecting different parts of Abbotsford and the Lower Mainland. Currently, the province only provides daily data on the B.C.’s six provincial health authorities and weekly data on 16 “Health Service Delivery Areas,” most of which span multiple cities and are home to hundreds of thousands of people

The province responded to The News’s request with figures for individual Local Health Areas – which roughly correspond to the boundaries of Abbotsford and hundreds of other B.C. cities and towns. But the information only includes monthly data for August and September. The BC CDC has also released community-level figures for October. But the province has balked at releasing more information about COVID-19, despite pleas by politicians and journalists who have asked for more comprehensive and timely city-level data.

Recently, the mayors of several Lower Mainland municipalities jointly wrote a letter to the province saying better city-level data would help.

“A better understanding of community transmission levels will help us make informed decisions regarding our facilities and the associated safety plans,” they wrote in a letter to Premier John Horgan. “More detailed local COVID-19 data will also guide our decision-making and resource allocation processes while working with local businesses and community organizations as they work to stay safe, open and economically viable.”

The Kootenay East Regional District made a similar plea to Interior Health. That health authority responded that they are following the provincial rules for reporting COVID-19 cases.

“As this is a provincial approach to reporting, I have asked that our Medical health Officers and Epidemiology team raise this issue with their provincial counterparts and colleagues in other health authorities for further discussion,” chief medical health officer Dr. Albert de Villiers wrote.

So far the province has deemed that releasing any more detailed information would jeopardize the health of some people. It hasn’t clarified how, exactly, releasing any municipal information would hurt people.

In the document released to The News, officials redacted the number of cases confirmed in each Local Health Area during two two-week time periods in September and October. Officials cited two sections of British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacty Act for the redactions. The PHSA declared that the redactions were necessary because the release of the figures would “be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy” and/or “would be harmful to a third party’s personal privacy.”

The News has asked the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review the redactions.

It’s not clear why information cannot be released for at least some of the Local Health Areas. Regular data is already released on a weekly basis for Richmond and Vancouver – the only two municipalities that are also considered Health Service Delivery Areas. The province already releases data regularly for such HSDAs, the size and population of which vary greatly.

While the BC CDC releases data on the number of people in the Northeast health region, where fewer than 80,000 people live, it says privacy and safety concerns prohibit it from providing the same information for Surrey, where more than half-a-million people live.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
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