Opinion: The public needs to know where COVID-19 outbreaks are happening

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A nurse greets patients at a COVID-19 walk-in clinic in Montreal on Sept. 29, 2020.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Provincial leaders and public-health officers have started pleading with people to cut back on risky activities as the second wave of COVID-19 sweeps across the country. They have not, however, actually provided the public with information – that is, data ostensibly collected through contact tracing – on what constitutes a risky activity, beyond the obvious.

By now, public-health agencies should have months’ worth of information about the environments and interactions that are driving the spread of the virus. Bars have been open in Quebec since the end of June. Restaurants in Alberta since May. Gyms have been operating in Ontario since July. And B.C. even reopened its schools to some students at the end of the last school year. Contract tracing should have been able to identify the locations of outbreaks in at least some, if not most, cases.

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And yet, the public still learns of outbreaks only sporadically: when a strip club makes the news, when a restaurant is shut down or when an unnamed workplace is pegged by public-health authorities as the source of dozens of infections. We don’t know which environments have seen more frequent outbreaks and which are more susceptible to particularly severe contagion. Without this context, the average person can’t reasonably ascertain the extent to which permitted activities are also safe ones.

Is it wrong to eat in restaurants? They are still open in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., despite high or rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in those provinces. Yet restaurants and bars will be closed in three “red zone” regions of Quebec as of Oct. 1 in response to soaring case numbers. Can we assume, then, that indoor dining was a major driver of infection in the province? If not, why will restaurants be limited to delivery and takeout only?

Is alcohol the culprit? The spike in cases in B.C. in August was traced to young people partying late at night, according to Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, who in September ordered nightclubs closed and moved up last call. But why did Ontario enforce similar restrictions on its licensed businesses when Premier Doug Ford attributed the province’s surge in cases to private gatherings, not bars and restaurants?

What about weddings, churches, hair salons and casinos? Casinos are now closing in some areas of Quebec, but they just reopened throughout Ontario as of this Monday. What information do we have about outbreaks traced to outdoor gatherings, if any? And to what extent is it safe to go back to work?

CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale actually offered a useful breakdown of its 50 active outbreaks in Quebec City last week, when 20 of them were tied to workplaces such as factories, government offices and garages. Just nine of the 50 were from bars and restaurants, which raises the question of whether demands to close bars have been misguided. A one-time snapshot, however, offers too little data from which to draw a firm conclusion.

Out of all the provinces grappling with a resurgence of COVID-19, Alberta offers the most by way of information on active outbreaks. Two times a week the Alberta Health Services website is updated with a list of active outbreaks by zone, with acute and long-term care facilities identified when there are two or more cases and outbreaks from other facilities or locations, including private gatherings, listed when there are five or more cases. The information is limited in that case numbers are not included alongside outbreak sites, but it’s more information than residents of B.C., Quebec and Ontario are afforded – at least it offers some insight into how COVID-19 is spreading in the province.

Those who work for public-health units, perform contact tracing duties and/or sit at important tables in government ostensibly have some idea of how and where COVID-19 is spreading in cities and provinces. There is no justification for withholding this information from the public, especially when citizens are constantly being urged to change their behaviours in non-specific ways. Months’ worth of data should enable us to avoid the kind of global shutdown we saw in March and instead pursue measures targeting activities that have proved particularly conducive to the spread of COVID-19. The public’s licence for the action comes through disclosure.

Indeed, people should see for themselves the data on how and where COVID-19 is spreading in their communities. They can only make better choices if and when they are given the information to do so.

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