UPDATED: What the leaked COVID-19 report tells us about Vancouver Island

Data transparency has been top-of-mind for independent researchers, who say even after the report was leaked they have no access to raw data

By Brishti Basu
May 10, 2021

UPDATED: What the leaked COVID-19 report tells us about Vancouver Island

Data transparency has been top-of-mind for independent researchers, who say even after the report was leaked they have no access to raw data

By Brishti Basu
May 10, 2021
Source: Province of BC / Flickr
Source: Province of BC / Flickr

UPDATED: What the leaked COVID-19 report tells us about Vancouver Island

Data transparency has been top-of-mind for independent researchers, who say even after the report was leaked they have no access to raw data

By Brishti Basu
May 10, 2021
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UPDATED: What the leaked COVID-19 report tells us about Vancouver Island
Source: Province of BC / Flickr

This story was updated on May 10 at 4:15 with newly released information about the rollout of COVID-19 case breakdowns by area.

Late Friday night, Sonia Furstenau lay awake wondering what would happen if doctors across BC offered their patients a course of treatment without explaining their malady to them.

This is the analogy the BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA used to explain the problem with the the province withholding COVID-19 data from the public.

On Thursday, the Vancouver Sun published a pair of leaked internal BC Centre for Disease Control reports that show the province has been collecting information about COVID-19 transmission and vaccinations on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis, along with other key pieces of data that experts and journalists have been requesting for months.

This in-depth information has never been shared with the public.

“It's really disappointing that after all these months of so many people asking for exactly this kind of data, that the government didn't release it, and now that it's been leaked out, [they] are not acknowledging that they could have done better,” Furstenau told Capital Daily.

“In a health emergency, and in a democracy, good information—accurate, complete information—isn't a nice-to-have. It's essential. As individuals, we need to be making choices that are informed, and we also need to know what is informing the government's decisions.”

At a last-minute press conference on Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Reka Gustafson did commit to sharing more detailed reports in the weeks to come—but not before trying to downplay the significance of what the internal reports show. 

What’s in the reports and why it matters

The leaked reports, which appear to be created weekly, contain a plethora of information that is left out of the weekly situation reports made public by the BCCDC. The data presented highlights different aspects of the pandemic in BC in the last week of April.

One of the biggest takeaways from the reports is most relevant to Lower Mainland residents: parts of Surrey with the highest rates of COVID-19 cases are also home to some of the least vaccinated populations, revealing racial inequities in the province’s vaccine rollout. This is a dynamic Fraser Health is trying to correct by hosting targeted immunization clinics at community centres like Gurdwaras in Surrey.

On Vancouver Island, COVID-19 case rates and test positivity rates are well below other parts of the province, and until now the most granular data available showed all of the South Island as one region. But the neighbourhood-level data revealed one municipality with a higher-than-average count in southern Vancouver Island.

Between April 23 and 29, View Royal had more than 40 cases per 100,000 people—a metric that signifies a higher case rate than what was happening in surrounding areas, and puts that municipality in league with the hardest-hit parts of the province. The municipality also had a 10 to 20% test positivity rate that week, which is higher than the rate in nearby locales. But the high rate is largely a function of its low population.

Source: Internal BCCDC report uploaded to Scribd by The Province (https://www.scribd.com/document/506837378/2021-04-29-Final-BCCDC-Weekly-Data-Summary-2#from_embed)

According to Island Health spokesperson Andrew Leyne, the population within the BCCDC boundaries for View Royal is only about 10,000, which means the case rate translates to about four cases per day—low numbers that were amplified by the low population overall.

“Our public health officials confirmed there were a couple of household clusters in View Royal at that time, but contact tracing occurred as with all cases, and all the high-risk contacts were notified,” Leyne said. 

View Royal Mayor David Screech says he wasn’t aware of any significant rule-flouting that would have led to a spike in cases in his municipality.

“Generally people are obeying the rules, so I'm not sure what would have caused the cluster,” he said. “I'm not absolutely sure what the cluster was... it sounded like it was a few households in close proximity to each other.”

Screech says he has been assured by Island Health that COVID-19 case numbers went back down to “well below any concern level” in the week ending Friday May 7. 

“It was a one-week blip… and I’m not sure what caused it,” said Screech, emphasizing that there is no cause for concern. 

“The government should consider releasing that report on a regular basis, if it's something that's available to them. That might give people a greater degree of comfort to be able to see that type of information.”

The leaked reports also include data about variants of concern that previously went unreported by the province. The day the Vancouver Sun published them was the same day the BCCDC shared a new report with more detailed information about variants of concern than ever before. 

This report tells us that presumptive variants of concern accounted for about 80% of all COVID-19 cases in BC as of May 1. This percentage is more or less consistent across all health authorities except Northern Health, which has fewer variant cases.

The majority of VoC cases are either the B.1.1.7 or the P.1 variants, with the former accounting for 57% of variant cases and the latter making up 43%. 

Experts like UVic’s Dr. Dean Karlen, a member of the interdisciplinary group called the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, have been calling for this data for months.

“If we had access to that data in February/March, the rapid rise at the end of March would have been predicted many weeks in advance,” Karlen told Capital Daily in an email.

“In general, by making more data available, researchers will be able to develop new models to better understand the spread of COVID-19.”

For scientists modelling the province’s pandemic trajectory independent of the BCCDC, the leaked presentation is a good start, but doesn’t present information in a way that’s useful. 

Karlen explains that researchers—outside of the province’s bubble of experts approved to view these internal presentations—need access to the raw data behind the colourful maps. 

Even the new, more detailed report that shows the public how variants of concern are progressing in BC doesn’t give independent researchers the underlying data that would allow them to conduct their own analyses.

“The BCCDC, of course, does have that data and produced graphs that purport to show something about the growth of the different strains,” Karlen said.

“With just the graph, I cannot do an independent analysis. There are some peculiar features in their graphs—and it would be useful for others to cross check the BCCDC analysis.”

Promises and denials

On Friday afternoon, deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Reka Gustafson answered with a decisive “yes” when a reporter asked if her office would commit to sharing detailed reports, like those leaked to the Vancouver Sun.

Henry put a timeline on that promise on Monday, saying the detailed COVID-19 case breakdowns by Community Health Service Area will go up on the BCCDC COVID-19 website every Wednesday, starting this week.

This commitment to share the information came after the province’s top doctors defended their communication strategy to date, trying to pass off the leaked reports as mere drafts of presentations that would have been shared with the public anyway. 

“The slide deck that you have is in fact our working copy that we share with our public health colleagues for validation...The vast majority [of information in that deck] is released,” said Gustafson.

Henry claimed BC releases more information to the public than other provinces and jurisdictions. 

“We have been very open from the very beginning where we presented as much as we could by areas,” she said. 

In reality, experts and critics in BC have long been calling for the government to be as transparent as other provinces when it comes to reporting COVID-19 case, vaccination, and test positivity rate data. Moreover the level of detail seen in the leaked report has never before been made public in BC. So Henry’s statement about the level of transparency in BC did not sit well with critics.

“We can see the level of data that's being released in other provinces,” Furstenau said. “It has been quite a bit more complete than the data that's coming out in BC. So it's not helpful to make a statement like that.”

For Vancouver Island, one week’s worth of granular data showed what Screech has called a “blip” in case rates for View Royal. 

But it is impossible to detect COVID-19 trends by municipality without having access to similar reports documenting neighbourhood-level information before and after the last week of April.

When asked about this information, Island Health spokesperson Leyne said they did not have access to data broken down by community health service delivery area—the exact type of data in the leaked report. 

Capital Daily’s request for access to this information has not yet been fulfilled by the Ministry of Health. 

For his part, Karlen says he hopes for a plan or commitment from the government and BCCDC to make the raw data behind presentations publicly available. 

No such commitment has been made so far. 

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