A journalist’s key duty is to seek out the information we need. And with COVID-19 infections rising, we all need to know where outbreaks are located, where we are vulnerable and how to protect ourselves.
But despite the continuing efforts of journalists and others to get that information from government bodies, some public health units and other bureaucracies are stuck in a bubble of their own – a bubble that is neither open nor transparent.
Take, for example, Peel Region, which has been dealing with its largest workplace outbreak since the start of the pandemic. Peel Health won’t even confirm the industry in which it occurred, let alone the actual business.
Compare that to Middlesex-London public health, which promptly reported not only five infections among students at the University of Western Ontario, but also noted that they lived off campus.
Some of these government bodies seem focused solely on protecting the privacy of individuals, but this is a national health emergency and we all need more information to guide our way through. Journalists don’t want individual names, they want to know where and why are these outbreaks happening, what companies or types of companies, what schools, what age groups are being affected.
Not only is it difficult to draw data and details from some bureaucracies, in Canada we are doubly challenged because we have no national data standards. To get the information needed, it is often necessary to contact not only each province and territory, but specific regions within those.
Before school reopened, The Globe and Mail published a major look at the data showing that safety of your child’s school depended on the neighbourhood, mapping low risk neighbourhoods and hot spots in five major cities.
Health reporter Kelly Grant and data editor Chen Wang looked at neighbourhoods in those cities to see how many new cases occurred in the past seven days. It took 10 days just to collect the data and make it comparable.
Ms. Wang said the availability of information across the country is spotty. Vancouver was not one of the five major cities sampled because British Columbia doesn’t disclose usable data at the neighbourhood level. On top of that, each city defines “neighbourhoods” differently, and the number of people in each neighbourhood can vary greatly. And for Calgary and Edmonton, because Alberta data is published by provincial health services, we used health care boundaries, which are different from those of standard neighbourhoods. Throughout, our goal with the project was to use the best available data, and explain the caveats in the story methodology.
Ms. Wang also said data from each city is reported in different formats and at different reporting frequency. Formats range from Excel files (which are the easiest for us to use), to PDFs, to interactive maps where we need to manually click and copy data for each geographic unit (sometimes with as many as 250 units per area). Toronto updates their data every few days, while others, such as Ottawa, update only every few weeks.
It’s not just journalists pushing for more transparency. This week the Toronto Board of Health asked the city’s public officer of health to release more detailed information about workplace outbreaks. On Twitter, board of health chair Joe Cressy said: “Complete transparency. If we’re going to beat this pandemic, that’s what we need. We can’t expect people to adjust their behaviour if they don’t know where transmission’s occurring.”
In B.C., First Nations groups have complained to the B.C. Ministry of Health about withholding information on COVID-19 outbreaks near rural Indigenous communities.
Three First Nations are asking B.C.’s information and privacy watchdog to force the province into divulging when COVID-19 cases pop up near their territories, arguing it would help them take extra measures to protect their vulnerable communities from the pandemic.
As we head into the fall with cases rising, Globe journalists will continue to press for more data so you can see where cases are trending higher and what needs to be done by both us as individuals and by our governments. That greater awareness should help limit transmissions.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.