The federal government is lagging some provinces and other countries as it continues to figure out the modelling that shows the best- and worst-case scenarios Canada faces in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments around the world are relying on mathematical projections based on available case data to understand how the pandemic could spread, in order to guide decision-making and ensure the right resources are in place to handle the coming surge in cases. Experts say releasing this modelling and other data are critical to building trust with citizens and helps governments get buy-in for the unprecedented and restrictive policies.
"The more information that we can share, the better,” said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab at York University in Toronto.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would disclose its modelling, but Ottawa has since played down the need and delayed its release. The result is Canadians are still in the dark about what information Mr. Trudeau’s government is basing its plans on.
At the provincial level, that’s changing. British Columbia has already released its modelling and Ontario will reveal its possible scenarios on Friday.
“It’s going to be a real sobering discussion,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday. “It’s going to be stark.”
The province’s top doctor compared pandemic modelling to a weather forecast – it may predict a blizzard but exactly how much snow fell comes from the data.
New Brunswick and Alberta have also promised to release their models.
Canada lagging other countries
Countries such as New Zealand and the United States have already released their planning scenarios. Models from the U.S. show the restrictions put in place are expected to blunt the impact of the disease and limit deaths to between 100,000 and 240,000. Without government action, the models show deaths could have reached 2.2. million.
Last week, Mr. Trudeau said Canadians "deserve the best information we’ve got about what’s happening today and what tomorrow might bring.” His only update Thursday was the information is coming “soon.”
He made his call for patience a day after federal officials played down the need for the models to be made public. “It’s not that helpful for us right now,” Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said, adding her agency’s focus is on getting the pandemic’s first wave under control.
Pressed repeatedly by journalists on Thursday about the delay, the Prime Minister said “as we get those models more accurate, we look forward to sharing them with Canadians.”
The federal NDP is calling for the immediate release of those models. “We can’t fight this virus blindly,” B.C. MP Don Davies said.
Last week, British Columbia took the lead in Canada in disclosing the models it is using to guide its pandemic response. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has also shared the protocols that will guide how medical teams will make life-or-death decisions, if critical medical equipment such as ventilators are rationed.
Dr. Henry said transparency is critical to ensuring the public embraces the sweeping restrictions, including school and business closings, travel bans and physical distancing rules.
“I just think if people can see it, they’re much more likely to believe,” she said.
The B.C. models didn’t include projections on fatalities but compared the potential number of acute COVID-19 cases with the number of intensive-care beds the province has, which are equipped with ventilators. In what health officials believe is the most likely scenario, the models show B.C. can meet the peak demand of 271 adults requiring ventilation.
Philpott urges transparency
Across all levels of government, former federal health minister Jane Philpott is calling for “radical transparency.”
Dr. Philpott, a family physician staffing a COVID-19 assessment centre in the Greater Toronto Area and the incoming dean of the faculty of health sciences at Queen’s University, said there are several challenges with the data going into the models, including consistency across jurisdictions, limited testing and timeliness, but that shouldn’t stop the information from being released.
She said models, by their very nature, aren’t perfect but they are still important to understanding where resources are needed, what the worst-case scenarios are and if Canada’s health-care professionals are properly equipped.
“You have to be frank about the things we are worried about and that we’re not doing so well on," Dr. Philpott said.
The information shared publicly needs to go beyond modelling to include up-to-date numbers on new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, as well as transparency in the factors that go into government decisions, Prof. Hoffman at York said.
What’s important is “promoting trust and ensuring there’s a broad range of information" available, he said. Prof. Hoffman added the federal government has been ahead of some of the provinces in this goal.
On the front lines, health-care workers are also calling for more transparency. Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union, said hospitals and long-term care homes are rationing personal protective equipment, and her members deserve to know what is happening with resupply efforts.
“We are asking the government to be more transparent, to be more honest about what they are facing in the days and weeks ahead,” Ms. Sorensen said.
Provinces not yet releasing models
Mr. Ford said he changed his mind about releasing the models because the public deserves to see the information that he gets, adding it will be a “real wake-up call” for people who still aren’t following self-isolation rules.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said her province is preparing to release its modelling, because it will help “people understand how serious the situation is” and why they need to fully participate in efforts to reduce the spread of the virus.
Quebec Premier François Legault and provincial Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda have refused to share Quebec’s projections – but haven’t been shy to claim success based on them.
On Monday, Dr. Arruda said the province is doing better than projected for acceleration in the growth of new cases. On Thursday, Mr. Legault said the province’s 3,000 ventilators would be sufficient for when the epidemic hits its peak. On neither occasion would they reveal what those projections said.
This week Mr. Legault shifted position on sharing a select version of the province’s modelling, saying he asked the public health team to release a "most likely scenario.”
“I understand people want to see what we have,” Mr. Legault told reporters.
Nova Scotia said it hasn’t decided yet whether to release its models when they are complete. Newfoundland and Labrador said its epidemic is weeks behind B.C. and it doesn’t yet have enough data for its models.
Manitoba said it is still working on its models but was unclear on whether they would be released. Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island did not respond to questions about releasing their models.
With reports from Laura Stone in Toronto and Les Perreaux in Montreal.
Editor’s note: This headline has been changed to reflect the print headline.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.