B.C. health officials mum as controversy mounts over 'anti-democratic' reporting policy

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British Columbia health officials are facing mounting criticism and questions in the wake of a CTV News story exposing their practice of only publicly reporting the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital who are infectious.

It’s been one week since CTV News first asked the Ministry of Health to reveal the total number of patients in hospital due to COVID-19, but despite repeated efforts to get the information and an explanation as to why the true figure is kept secret, officials have not responded.

"I think it's totally unacceptable, I think it's anti-democratic, I think it's counterproductive,” said Damian Contandriopoulos, a public health researcher and professor at the University of Victoria. “In B.C. we cannot have rational debates (about) whether a situation is under control, where the problems are, what we should do, because we don't have the numbers."

British Columbia only publishes the number of ICU patients who are still contagious with COVID-19 and therefore still require extra safety protocols for staff, but still keeps track of all patients, which the provincial health officer acknowledged Tuesday.

"What we report on a daily basis is based on the epidemiologic information,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, referring to the patients sick enough to need hospitalization.

She acknowledged that “census information,” or the overall number of patients in hospital for COVID-19 and other reasons, is kept separately and “helps us look at health-care system impact on a day-to-day basis.”

Henry did not explain why they don’t report both numbers, which only a small circle of healthcare workers are privy to, only that they’ve maintained the same reporting policy since the start of the pandemic.

WARNINGS THAT SECRECY UNDERMINES TRUST
Contandriopoulos warned that a strategy of minimizing hospitalizations to help build an impression government is better managing the pandemic is “dangerous."

“If you look at it in the long run, when you have a government that provides numbers that people are not convinced are true, what you'll get is people will just stop believing information that comes from that government,” he said.

That concern is echoed by the leader of the BC Green Party, who has repeatedly pressed the New Democrat government to be more open.

"Calling for transparency, from my point of view, is really about building and maintaining trust,” said Sonia Furstenau. “We're in this health emergency and we need the public to trust the information that's coming from government…and understand the implications to our health-care system of ongoing COVID cases."

She noted distrust or skepticism of government information has implications for vaccination efforts and other public health measures; the MLA also applauded Manitoba’s government for reporting all hospitalizations due to COVID-19, whether infectious or not.

“We can look to other jurisdictions for all sorts of good practices and bad practices," said Furstenau. “It is absolutely essential that government be constantly reviewing: Are we being open enough? Are we being transparent enough? Are we providing the information that's necessary?"

History tells us that full transparency is unlikely, despite long-running criticism across industries.

FUDGING THE NUMBERS?

CTV News has spoken with numerous physicians who work in various capacities and all expressed frustration that the province won’t be honest with citizens about how a serious case of COVID-19 can last for many months, with hospitalized patients taking up resources that have contributed to delayed surgeries and the inability to help Alberta’s collapsing health-care system.

Many have expressed sentiments along the lines of “the numbers never added up” in terms of B.C.’s reported infection numbers, hospitalizations and school-acquired infections, and those suspicions are echoed by independent experts and their peers.


“Pre-pandemic, I regarded B.C. as head and shoulders above other Canadian provinces (with regards to) public health,” tweeted influential epidemiologist and University of Toronto professor Dr. David Fisman. “At this point I think they’re just the best data-fudgers.”

Contandriopoulos agreed, noting everyone should be paying attention and calling for full disclosure of what’s happening in the public health-care system.

"The numbers that are made available in B.C. are less precise and point to more issues in the ways things are accounted for than data is available in other large provinces– Ontario and Quebec – that I follow closely," he said, noting the pandemic patterns often don’t fit in with what’s happening in other provinces.

“I would really really hope that at some point B.C. just accepts, backtracks and says, 'We'll be open, we'll be transparent and enter the 21st century at last.'"