B.C. has stopped sharing data on the occupational status of people who test positive for COVID-19, deeming that data too sensitive to share, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
That data includes how many positive COVID-19 cases involve doctors, nurses or health-care workers.
Data analysts say that’s a problem because tracking such positive cases is a crucial marker that can reveal if the health-care system is coming under too much stress — but there’s not much the federal agency can do about it except “ask nice” because the data is owned by the province.
“[PHAC] can confirm that we have not received any information on occupational status of COVID-19 cases from the province of British Columbia since June 2020,” reads an email from a Statistics Canada analyst.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry denied this was the case when CBC asked her about the issue on Oct. 15
“We have not stopped sharing that. … We do provide that information and certainly provide it on request,” she said.
Henry said the B.C. Centre for Disease Control gathers occupational information and there have been some recent changes to how cases are defined to collect more detail, so reporting “changed slightly … but we’ve certainly reported on health worker data.”
But Vancouver data analyst Jens von Bergmann says his attempts to access occupational data have been met only with frustration — and B.C. isn’t the only province not sharing or restricting its data.
“Our overall data effort is just shockingly bad when it comes to COVID. It’s a mess,” he said.
All COVID-19 cases are supposed to be reported by the provinces to the federal health authority through a specific form created in February. The idea was to create a national standard for data collection.
The form has a section coding each case by occupation, including whether a worker is employed in a school, hospital or long-term care facility.
But the information is not always shared as requested, so the result is a patchwork of health data.
Lessons from SARS not learned, analysts say
Mario Possamai says COVID-19 is being mismanaged in many of the same ways the SARS outbreak of 2003 was, especially around data collection.
In a report released in October called A Time of Fear, Possamai, senior advisor on the 2007 SARS Commission, explains how tracking health workers’ infections is a crucial marker of how well Canada’s health-care system is coping.
It helps officials quickly spot human-to-human transmission, allowing them to react appropriately. For example, close monitoring of health-care worker infection rates in China showed an early spike that led to an upgrade of airborne precautions.
It refers to health-care workers as the “canary in the coal mine” — and compares fighting a pandemic with a lack of data on them to trying to play hockey by skating to where the puck was weeks ago.
The report describes B.C. as perhaps the “most problematic jurisdiction” for providing “incomplete, inconsistent and, on occasion, seemingly contradictory” public health data.
“British Columbia appears to have simply refused to continue providing the number of health-care workers being infected by COVID‐19. It has not provided a reason for doing so,” says Possamai in his report.
For von Bergmann, that means “clearly none of this got fixed” since SARS.
“We are in the same mess again,” he said.
Epidemiology PhD student Jean-Paul Soucy says it is “surprising and concerning” that B.C. doesn’t share occupation data, especially since this province had extreme outbreaks in nursing homes early in the pandemic.
Soucy, a student at the University of Toronto, co-founded the COVID-19 Canada Open Data Working Group in March in an attempt to knit together the patchwork of national health data into an accessible dashboard.
In March, volunteers transcribed information from news reports and are still harvesting data from graphics to try to create a pan-Canadian snapshot.
“It’s good to be able to share raw numbers so that people have confidence that what’s happening is going to do something against the virus,” said Soucy.
But provinces aren’t legally required to share with the federal government the health data they collect and own.
“All [PHAC] can do is a nice ask,” said von Bergmann.
PHAC initially told CBC on Oct. 14 that B.C. was sharing occupational data, but later corrected that statement and explained the agency received data for the month of June only. It says it’s continuing to negotiate with the province to obtain that information.
Requests for more information have yet to be answered by the B.C. Ministry of Health, which offered assurances that public health staff are continually monitoring and assessing the COVID-19 situation and positivity rates to keep people safe.