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COVID reporting demands more transparency

Posted: September 4, 2020

(September 2, 2020)

By: Hamilton Spectator, The Hamilton Spectator

Balancing competing priorities is never an easy task. It’s even more difficult when we’re talking about public health priorities, and it’s exponentially more difficult when we’re talking about public health priorities in a pandemic.

That said, making those decisions is what public health officials get paid for, and what they trained for. Which doesn’t mean they are always going to get it right.

At issue is the way public health communicates, or doesn’t communicate, COVID-19 cases to the public. In simple terms, Hamilton public health reports cases to the public when they are found on congregate settings — long-term care facilities, shelters and hospices — when the chances of the virus being passed on to others in proximity to the first case are good. But if the case is in a private business, an office or other small workplace, and even grocery stores, they do not.

The rationale goes like this: Publicly report where the risk of spread is high, do not report when the risk is low. In fact, some public health experts say communicating in cases where the risk of spread is low can do more damage than good because doing so will inevitably cause anyone who was in or around the site where the report originated to feel stressed and anxious. Add to that the damage that could be done to the employer involved from being publicly identified as the site of a COVID case.

It is not our intention to minimize these concerns. Who among us has not felt the heightened stress and anxiety from a COVID scare? Am I sick? Could I make my loved ones and friends sick? What if I am hospitalized?

As far as businesses being damaged, you are reading the work produced by one business that has been severely damaged by the pandemic, in large part because we rely so much on other businesses and their advertising. In short, what hurts business hurts us, too. That’s about the last thing we want to see happen.

Still, we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something missing from the current public health approach. What about the individual’s right to know? Don’t we have right to know if we have been in proximity to someone who has COVID-19?

If you shop at a local grocery store, you have probably already heard some have had cases reported among staff. We only know about them because the parent companies involved believe they have a responsibility to be transparent. When they have a positive case, they monitor staff, clean thoroughly, direct isolation where necessary, and they choose to report the cases.

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