Nova Scotians question government decision to limit public COVID-19 data

As the Nova Scotia government moves toward what politicians and public health officials are calling “living with COVID,” some are questioning the timing of the decision to reduce the amount of COVID-19 data that’s publicly released.

The Health Department released its first weekly COVID-19 statistics on Thursday after nearly two years of mostly releasing daily information.

Unlike the daily reports, the weekly report was missing information about:

  • The number of PCR tests being done (a figure used to calculate positivity rate).
  • The age of people who have recently died due to the coronavirus.
  • The zone in which people who recently died of COVID-19 lived.
  • The age range of people hospitalized with COVID-19.
  • The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 who were admitted for another reason or who contracted COVID-19 after being admitted.
  • The number of people in intensive care.
  • A full breakdown of the vaccination status of people in hospital.
  • The number of cases in each zone.
  • The estimated number of active cases.

Some say the information is not enough for them to judge the risks of certain activities as they go about their daily lives.

“I was immediately concerned about that,” said Dan Parks, 70, who lives in Colby Village, N.S. “There’s not enough information there for anybody in Nova Scotia to make a risk assessment.”

Parks said he uses the positivity rate — the number of positive PCR COVID-19 tests divided by the total number of PCR tests conducted — to assess his risk. But that figure is now missing.

Parks would also like to see the return of reporting information by zone so he has a better idea of the amount of coronavirus around him.

“I don’t understand why they won’t provide that information,” he said. “It’s got to be simple. They have the stats.”

Reports will ‘evolve over time’

CBC News asked the Health Department why certain figures were no longer being reported.

In an email, spokesperson Marla MacInnis said, “We are still refining our process and you should expect to see this report evolve over time.”

Asked why the total number of PCR tests administered is no longer being reported, MacInnis said since the Omicron wave began, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang has cautioned against using the number of positive tests to gauge virus level.

“With confirmatory PCR testing back online, it is closer — but not everyone infected with COVID is symptomatic and not all those with symptoms go for a PCR test,” MacInnis said.

She said the number of people in intensive care is no longer being reported because “if someone has been hospitalized due to COVID-19, regardless of the unit, they are very sick. Hospitalization is an indicator of severe disease.”

Confusion over hospitalization trends

CBC also asked why the weekly report noted a downward trend in hospitalizations when the number jumped from 45 to 50 between March 4 and March 11, the respective dates of the last daily report and the first weekly report.

“We could have been more clear in saying that hospitalizations have trended down consistently since the peak of the Omicron wave,” MacInnis wrote. “We are working to refine our reporting process further in the weeks ahead as we transition together to this new approach.”

Asked Monday whether the province would release more data on this week’s report, MacInnis said “we’re still working those details out.”

Speaking with CBC News on Monday, Dr. Lisa Barrett, a leading expert in vaccines and infectious diseases, said she didn’t see the ‘scientific reason’ for lifting Nova Scotia’s mask mandate. (CBC)

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s medical school, said over time, it makes sense to change the information that’s distributed.

“But that doesn’t mean it has to go back to as little information as we had on other respiratory viruses in the past,” she said.

“I would argue that we probably do need a little bit more information.… I do think that that helps people to make their risk assessments and to have the information they want and need.

“And there’s a degree of transparency. If the numbers are high enough that they don’t affect privacy, then why would we not provide people with as much information as we can to help them live as safely as they can without having to be overly protective?”

Barrett said she uses the positivity rate and the number of hospitalizations and deaths to understand how much virus is present in the community.

‘This is not the time,’ says NDP critic

NDP health critic Susan Leblanc said the timing of the restriction on data is questionable.

Nova Scotia is scheduled to move to the final phase of its reopening plan on March 21, removing physical distancing and mask requirements in most public places, as well as gathering limits.

“It feels like this is not the time to lower the amount of data,” she said.

“If we’re expected to be OK with people not wearing masks and no restrictions at all, which is coming really soon, then people do want to be able to make their own decisions in that environment and they need as much information as possible.”

Liberal health critic Patricia Arab agreed.

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “We know how to mask, how to make choices for ourselves. But when you’re not getting all the information, when the mandates are being taken away, I think that there’s too many unknowns that play into that to allow us to really move ahead in a healthy, positive way.”

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