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Opinion: B.C. government's withholding of COVID-19 data sows harmful distrust

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

An Open Letter to Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry:

In my capacity as vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media, I am writing to express grave concern about the provincial government’s information policies and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic and their impact on the public’s right to know.

We are now in the second year of this battle to suppress the coronavirus. As media we take seriously our integral role in safekeeping the public from harm’s way. We have devoted enormous resources in this last year under difficult physical and economic circumstances to proudly perform our duties.

But a pattern of behaviour has emerged within this provincial government that fails to provide timely, accurate, detailed and frank information about the pandemic. This is deeply worrisome for the public we serve and you serve.

This strict and often harmful control of information has contributed to an increased public mistrust in the handling of the pandemic. We hear of this each day in our work-from-home newsrooms, and in many cases the public frustration is directed at us for not telling the full story, for defending authorities, even for being your puppets.

It is time for you to fix this problem promptly.

Data on the coronavirus in some provinces is provided by city block. In ours, it is provided generally by health authority region and only in a few cases by municipality or districts within them.

Information on occupational infection, critical in understanding the health of our province’s frontline workers, is not disclosed.

Age-related data on infections, essential in understanding the trajectory of the coronavirus, arrives many days late and is often at odds with earlier caseload data.

School exposures, some of the most critical data in mitigating community risk and managing community concerns, are not released for several days until contact tracing is conducted.

The R-value data, the crucial information on how many people on average are infected by individuals with COVID-19, is distorted by the exclusion of outbreaks and released only once a month.

Beyond those insufficiencies is a profound disservice to journalists attempting to fulfil their functions in a public emergency. It is well past time we cited these fault lines.

It is taking days to receive simple responses to our questions. It is policy to deny the most basic information about the local, regional or provincial presence of COVID-19. It is basic common sense in a crisis to not have a three-day gap each week between media briefings on caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths. These briefings should provide more generous time for questions and for journalists from outside the legislative press gallery in other regions of the province.

Our access to government health experts has been cut off. Apart from the briefings by the premier, the health minister and the provincial health officer, media may deal only with communications specialists. We are having to rely more and more often on anonymous sources when we, and the province we serve, deserve on-the-record public accountability.

When our queries are thwarted and we resort to freedom-of-information requests, we have been routinely denied the information and told there are privacy issues. Other jurisdictions have conquered that base canard, but British Columbia has taken a unique and restrictive position on the matter.

One of our reporters wrote me this week to say, in part: “The lack of factual information makes it impossible to really present a full picture to the public of what is happening in the pandemic—who is getting sick and how/why and what has happened in the most serious situations. Especially in local areas.”

She added: “The queries I get from the public tell me that this is information the public wants. Citizens aren't children. They have the right to this information in order to both assess their own degree of risk and behaviour and to assess whether government policies and actions are appropriate.”

Some of our editors provided examples of the deficiencies worth noting:

  • Our Bowen Island publication has yet to be told officially, one year into the health crisis, whether there have been any COVID-19 cases there. Its data is combined with that of West Vancouver.
  • Our Delta publication cannot get distinct COVID-19 numbers for such specific locations as North Delta, Tsawwassen and Ladner or of the ages of those with coronavirus.
  • Our Whistler publication asks each week for coronavirus numbers for the community. Only twice in the year has it received the information in time for its weekly newspaper deadline. During the recent serious outbreak, this data was constantly outdated.
  • Our North Shore publication, during the outbreaks in care homes last spring, could not get the number of COVID-19 cases in them in a timely manner. It was provided information on the most recent hospital outbreak only a month later. To date it is not informed on how many infected patients are admitted to hospital or where they are from.
  • Our Interior publication said it took a local doctor and the mayor at Sun Peaks to provide basic information on case counts at the resort. The health authority refused to provide numbers because an outbreak has not been declared formally. Until December, regional case data was broken into four regions within the Interior, a region larger than most European countries.
  • Our Sunshine Coast publication learned without any official notice that several vaccination clinics had without warning been closed and were centralized in Sechelt in the region.

As the British Columbia media outlet with the largest online and print audience, we are prepared to help the province furnish comprehensive, coherent information amid record caseloads and a frustrating third wave.

But the onus is on this government to do what individuals and businesses have done in the pandemic – to “pivot” its approach, to trust the public and media with information to achieve a better health outcome. We welcome an immediate dialogue on this urgent matter.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.