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Alberta doctors concerned sector-specific COVID-19 transmission data still not public

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Alberta Health promised to release data on where COVID-19 was spreading back in January. Two months later and there is still no detailed breakdown of transmission by sector — and doctors say that information is vital for Albertans. Julia Wong reports – Mar 26, 2021

It has been more than two months since the province’s top doctor initially said sector-specific transmission data would be shared but so far, no specifics have been released, even as doctors say that information is vital for Albertans.

On Jan. 20, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the data, which would break down the different sectors where COVID-19 has been found to spread, would be shared “in the coming weeks.”

Read more: Alberta adds 669 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday as NDP calls for action to contain variants

However, when asked March 17 when the information would be available, Hinshaw did not have a date for when complete data would be released to the public.

“We have been working with our analytics team on that, as well as many other pieces of work that need to be done,” she said.

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“Unfortunately, as we respond to all of the different factors that we need to with our analytics team, sometimes particular pieces of work can take longer as other, more urgent priorities come forward.”

Hinshaw then said they’re working with teams to make sure information is being captured in a consistent way.

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Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta, said there can be value to releasing sector-specific transmission data.

“If you are aware, for example, there have been variants of concern transmitted in different settings in the community, it would actually make you choosy about what you decided to do and where to do it. I think some examples might be of value just so people can understand what is going on.”

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Saxinger said, though it may be difficult to figure out the level of information to provide and how to guard privacy, transmission data would be useful for people to know.

“At the end of the day, people have to be aware that when they are out and about there is some risk,” she said.

Hinshaw has previously said that when people are with others outside of their household, when they are not masked or distanced, that COVID-19, and in particular the variants of concern, can spread.

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On Thursday, she said household spread accounts for 40 per cent of cases but did not detail where the other 60 per cent came from. She has also said that there has been spread in social gatherings and workplaces but did not quantify them.

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“At the end of the day, what people need to know is that…whatever setting they’re in, if the COVID-19 precautions are not followed, COVID can spread and it can spread quickly,” Hinshaw said on March 17.

Read more: Coronavirus spread risk is now ‘very high’ — what does that mean for Canadians?

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Saxinger admits that examples of risk areas could make people focus on those sectors to the exclusion of others but that there are trade-offs.

“The messaging should really be framed as ‘for example.’ I think the ‘for example’ piece can make it a little bit more real for people. If a grocery store or a car dealership or a gym or place of worship have had outbreaks, then that makes you think when you’re going into similar scenarios.

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“As long as it’s messaged as being an example, I think it might still be useful to go over,” Saxinger said.

“Sometimes people need a bit of a booster for their vigilance and that might actually be a way to do that.”

Read more: These are the most likely — and least likely — ways to spread COVID-19

Critical care physician Dr. Darren Markland put it in blunter terms.

“If I’m thinking about not telling someone something, there’s a reason for it.”

Dr. Neeja Bakshi, who works in the COVID unit at the Royal Alex Hospital, echoes comments that sector-specific transmission data is important.

“I may have gone to a restaurant and I didn’t get COVID, therefore… restaurants don’t have COVID or gyms or whatever it might be. It very well might be that those places don’t have high transmission but until Albertans can see that, they’re going to assume it’s OK to do those things because the restrictions are lifted to allow those things.”

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Bakshi said that if the government is following the evidence on transmissibility when it comes to restrictions, the transmission data should be shared.

She agrees with Hinshaw that letting one’s guard down could allow the virus to spread but she said the message of “do the right thing” is falling on deaf ears.

“Obviously I think they’re operating on evidence and fact. I think it’s important for Albertans to see that because otherwise saying, ‘Do the right thing’– we’ve been saying that since Day 1 and obviously we’ve gone through multiple waves,” Bakshi said.

There is no word on when sector-specific transmission data will be released. Alberta Health said, in response to an inquiry about a timeline Thursday, that work is underway.

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