The list of those angered by secretive British Columbia government health officials is getting longer.
Three First Nations, the B.C. Teachers Federation, parents at a West Vancouver elementary school and the B.C. Nurses Union have gone public, to demand coronavirus transparency from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.
An Oct. 5 report for the Canadian Federation of Nurses by the seniors advisor to Ontario’s SARS commission singled out B.C.’s NDP government for hiding too much information and putting the health of frontline nurses at risk.
“The most problematic jurisdiction may be British Columbia. Its publicly disclosed data has been incomplete, inconsistent and on occasion, seemingly contradictory,” wrote Mario Possamai in A Time of Fear: How Canada Failed Our Health Care Workers and Mismanaged Covid‐19.
Possamai’s report said B.C. stopped publishing the number of healthcare workers infected by the virus and did not explain why. Possamai cited theBreaker.news July exclusive on how B.C.’s government left healthcare workers scrambling to get personal protective equipment after the stockpiles of gloves, masks and other gear were allowed to dwindle to dangerously low levels before 2020.
“This report is pretty damning,” said Jason Woywada, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “This is exactly the time when more transparency is needed, for people to have faith and understand why and how decisions are being made. We don’t think that releasing this information is going to cause undue concern in the public, it’s going to help them have faith in the decisions.”
Possamai wrote that healthcare workers paid the price for Canada’s failure to learn from the 2003 SARS pandemic. Governments failed to stockpile enough PPE, putting healthcare workers at greater risk. An estimated 20% of COVID-19 cases in Canada are healthcare workers, more than double the international rate.
“Under‐resourced, overworked and under-appreciated health workers were the glue that held together this dysfunctional health sector with their courage and dedication,” Possamai wrote. “But even their courage and dedication could not hold back the tsunami of COVID‐19. The result is that far too many health workers and far too many residents of the long‐term care sector have been infected and died.”
The report said Canada failed to take a precautionary approach to pandemic management and followed the World Health Organization too closely, especially the reluctance to adopt public masking and close borders. The report criticized Dr. Theresa Tam for highlighting “potential negative aspects of wearing masks” and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for calling border closures a “knee jerk reaction that isn’t keeping people safe.”
Possamai recommended federal and provincial governments iron out their differences on public health data sharing, give more power and resources to Statistics Canada to track healthcare worker data and be open and transparent about PPE stockpiles.
Federal and provincial chief medical officers should be required by law to report annually to their legislatures and the public on the state of public health emergency preparedness with recommendations to address any shortcomings. They should also be barred from serving on WHO committees.
Tam is a member of a committee that oversees and advises WHO’s health emergencies program. Henry is a member of a subcommittee on mass-gatherings and events with doctors from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.
Last month, BCTF president Teri Mooring complained to the Labour Relations Board over the government’s back-to-school plan and poor communication of school outbreaks. Mooring was troubled that Fraser Health was providing more information than Vancouver Coastal Health.
“We understand the negative impacts of rumours and speculation especially in the context of a pandemic, this is the reason we take the position that information regarding schools needs to be shared in an open, transparent, and timely manner by the local health authorities,” Mooring wrote. “In the absence of this openness the public sharing of information will continue, and we are concerned this could lead to an undermining of public confidence in both the education system and in the health authorities.”
Parents at West Vancouver’s Caulfeild Elementary went public Oct. 5 with their letter, revealing that nine members of a class of 16, five parents, two siblings and two grandparents were infected with the virus.
“We believe the cluster at Caulfeild Elementary has exposed significant gaps in the cohort system. In particular, lag time in contact tracing that could potentially allow for the spread of COVID while parents wait for guidance from public health or case confirmation,” wrote parent Coralynn Gehl.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner will hear an appeal from Nuu-chah-nulth, Heiltsuk and Tsilhquot’in first nations. They want Henry ordered to release anonymized case information under the rarely used public interest override section of the freedom of information law.
In 2017, the NDP promised to reform B.C.’s FOI laws, including simplification of the public interest override in order to release more information about health and environmental risks to the public. In a recent report, Commissioner Michael McEvoy found the Health Ministry the most-prone to late responses to FOI applicants.
McEvoy doesn’t escape scrutiny for his own decisions. Last spring he gave the government an unprecedented two-month blanket disclosure holiday to adapt to the pandemic. He invited applications for more extensions on a case-by-case basis.
The province’s six health authorities took advantage and received 60-business day deadline extensions, pushing the disclosure dates for many files about pandemic spending and operations beyond the Oct. 24 snap election.
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