As provinces ask people to manage COVID risks, experts say the public has less data

By Jacob Serebrin
THE CANADIAN PRESS

MONTREAL – At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, retired teacher Lois Armstrong said local health officials where she lives in Kings- ton, Ont., provided daily up- dates about outbreaks, cases and deaths in the community.

Now, Armstrong, 68, said the public is being asked to take a bigger role in managing their risk but information from health authorities is less available than before. Data such as the location of outbreaks, meanwhile, is no longer made public, she added.

“I think it’s very difficult for the average person to assess their own risk,” Armstrong said Monday in an interview. “Kingston is one of the hot spots of Ontario, but they still are only posting the information three times a week, and you can’t go get tested unless you’re really high risk or really sick. So there’s no way of knowing.”

Health experts agree with Armstrong. Provincial governments are telling Canadians to estimate their own sense of risk but those same governments are reducing the amount of data available to residents, they say.

“There’s no question that people are being provided less data,” said Tara Moriarty, a University of Toronto professor in the faculty of dentistry who studies infectious diseases. “It’s particularly critical because people have been made responsible for how they handle the pandemic and the decisions they make.”

Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador are the only provinces that report daily COVID-19 data, she said in an interview Monday, adding that Canada does less COVID-19 testing per capita than other wealthy countries.

For the week ending April 9, an average of 1.46 COVID-19 tests per 1,000 people were conducted every day in Canada, according to Our World In Data, a global data website affiliated with Oxford University. In Austria, by contrast, 40.5 tests were conducted per 1,000 people. In Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, France and South Korea, three times as many daily tests were conducted per capita as Canada. The website counts both PCR and antigen test results that are made public.

While wastewater testing has become a way to track the evolution of the pandemic, Moriarty said, it’s only being done in large cities in some provinces.

It’s not just an issue of data, she said, but also of communication. Government leaders, she explained, need to do a better job of communicating what the current situation is and who might be most at risk.

“You need to give people information so they can make better risk assessments and so that they can modify their behaviour accordingly,” she said. “If you withhold that information, or, by omission, just don’t provide it, you’re limiting the ability of people to act on that information.”

Jean-Paul Soucy, a PhD student at the University of Toronto who studies infectious disease epidemiology, said some provinces, like Nova Scotia, have stopped reporting region-specific data, which he said makes it difficult for residents to manage their own risk.

“COVID is not just one big outbreak in a country, it’s 1,000 little epidemics that are local,” he said in an interview Monday. “So the more local your information is, the more tailored your decision-making can be. Health care is local. If you need an ICU bed and there’s one free in Kenora, that’s not going to be too helpful if you’re in Toronto.”

Soucy said he takes more precautions when the COVID-19 situation worsens and participates in riskier activities when the situation improves.

“An important component of public health is building trust,” he said. “And I think transparency builds trust.”