Shifting line on COVID-19 statistics Canadian regions go their own way on collecting, releasing infection data

Last week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe provided residents of his province with the kind of detailed coronavirus pandemic information rarely seen in neighbouring Manitoba.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/08/2020 (1035 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe provided residents of his province with the kind of detailed coronavirus pandemic information rarely seen in neighbouring Manitoba.

Concerned by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan Hutterite colonies, Moe served up some cold facts July 29: of the 322 active cases in the province that day, 244 were from colonies. In an update the following day, Saskatchewan officials backed away from specifically mentioning Hutterite colonies, instead citing infection totals for "multiple communal living settings."

Manitoba has also seen a recent spike in Hutterite case counts, but its residents have received scant information from their provincial government.

For a time, the province did refer to certain cases as being linked to Hutterite colonies, but quickly stopped when it received blowback from the communities for being singled out. The public can now only guess the actual numbers based on regional health authority counts.

Chart showing cumulative cases of COVID-19 by health region

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Manitoba has been miserly with information about specific cases, dispensing it on a need-to-know basis, citing privacy concerns.

On Friday, Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, still would not refer to the Maple Leaf Foods Inc. meat processing plant by name when discussing employees at that location who had become infected. Instead, he referred to it only as "a business in Brandon."

This is despite the fact a public debate has arisen as to whether the plant should be shut down temporarily as a precaution. (Roussin says there’s no evidence the virus has been transmitted within the plant itself.)

Chart shoing daily and rolling five-day positivity rates for COVID-19 in manitoba

Asked Friday about whether Manitoba should be providing more information to the public about novel coronavirus cases, Premier Brian Pallister said he supports releasing more detailed geographic locations of cases.

He said it’s an area in which he and Roussin have disagreed.

“Dr. Roussin and I have, I think, developed a growing relationship of trust — that doesn’t mean we agree on everything… Sometimes we disagree,” just as family members sometimes do, Pallister said.

“In this case, we’ve had some good discussion about advancing additional detail to the public because I think that is important. For example, saying there is a problem in a health region when our health regions in rural Manitoba are so big, it creates a fear across the whole region that I don’t want to see happen,” the premier said. “Imagine the fear when you hear there are a dozen cases in one health region?

“I’d like to see greater detail released,” Pallister said. “There are discussions underway on how that might be able to be done, always respecting, of course, the rights to privacy of an individual’s health.”

Toronto Public Health started collecting information on Indigenous identity, racial group, income and household size for COVID-19 cases May 20.

Data is collected from infected people on a voluntary basis. The City of Toronto says while there are limitations to this type of information gathering, it still provides considerable insight into how the illness is impacting the community.

The first batch of information, collected May 20-July 16, revealed 83 per cent of people infected by the coronavirus in Canada’s largest city identified with a racialized group. Fifty-one per cent of reported cases were living in households that could be considered lower-income; 27 per cent of COVID-19 cases were among individuals who live in households with five or more people.

Manitoba began collecting information about cases involving First Nation and Inuit persons, in collaboration with those communities, April 3. The collection of racial and ethnic identifiers became a mandatory part of case investigation in the province May 3. Manitoba says it does not typically collect data on income and household size.

The province is not yet publishing any statistics that break down COVID-19 cases by race or ethnicity, although it says it might do so in the future. The public has only had limited access to First Nations data the First Nations themselves have released.

"Work is ongoing to develop a process for the engagement and participation of diverse communities into the analysis, response planning and communications of separating out COVID-19 surveillance information," a spokeswoman said in a statement to the Free Press this week.

"A plan is being developed to release and disaggregated data available that respects all relevant health and information privacy standards and includes all partners."

The province has been forthcoming with some types of information concerning Manitobans who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Cases have long been broken down by age group, sex and health authority.

Chart showing Manitoba's reported COVID-19 cases by age and gender

The government is now issuing COVID-19 surveillance reports that reveal the impact of underlying health conditions on hospitalization rates for the virus. The government is also tracking and reporting on the frequency of specific symptoms among infected persons.

There were 54 persons identified as being infected with COVID-19 in Manitoba during the week of July 19-25.

Of those who were hospitalized, more than 90 per cent had some form of chronic underlying health condition. Close to half of infected persons who did not require hospitalization also suffered from some form of chronic condition.

The province also tracks and publishes how frequently COVID-19 patients suffer from certain specific health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and others. However, cumulative information (since the beginning of the pandemic) is so far unavailable.

According to provincial data, cough, fever and headache have been the three most common symptoms reported by those testing positive in Manitoba for COVID-19.

About two-thirds of infected persons have had a cough, while 45 per cent suffered from fever and the same percentage complained of a headache. Slightly more than 40 per cent suffered muscle pain, close to 40 per cent had chills and one-third suffered from sore throat. About a quarter of persons testing positive suffered from shortness of breath.

— with files from Carol Sanders

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.


Updated on Friday, August 7, 2020 7:23 PM CDT: Updates charts

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