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Two-day time lag in reporting Hamilton COVID-19 data

Posted: September 5, 2020

(September 4, 2020)

By: Joanna Frketich, The Hamilton Spectator

COVID-19 data will now be two days behind when it’s reported to the public on the city’s website.

Hamilton public health services is blaming the 48-hour lag on the transition to a new case and contact management (CCM) system that is mandated by the Ministry of Health.

But none of the other 30 public health units (PHU) that have moved to the new system have similar delays in reporting data, says Travis Kann, the communications director for Health Minister Christine Elliott.

“Not sure why Hamilton would be the only PHU experiencing issues,” he said. “But there aren’t widespread system issues.”

On Tuesday, Hamilton public health said that some COVID-19 data on the city’s website is incorrect, blaming the CCM system that came into place on the weekend of Aug. 23. On Thursday, public health said it was “taking some time to complete full implementation” and had to “use manual methods for some data management.”

As a result there would now be a two-day delay in reporting daily case counts, deaths, exposure acquisition, sex, age and severity. That is in addition to the city not updating its data on the weekend.

“Getting the most up-to-date information helps people to protect themselves,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition. “It’s very important that there be full information and it be as timely as possible.”

She expressed particular concern that information on how people were infected is being temporarily removed from the website altogether as public health determines the best process to report on whether exposures occured in the community, during an outbreak, from travel or from close contact with a case.

“That is vital information,” said Mehra. “For whatever unspecified period of time, people are not going to know where the contagion is happening.”

In addition, she points out the lag is coming at a crucial time as kids go back to school, more services reopen and communities start to see an uptick in cases.

“It helps to get out early warning for people,” said Mehra. “Untold numbers of people might take more precautions if they know.”

The new system is supposed to provide public health with integrated and timely lab records, streamlined workflows, increased support, eliminate duplication and simplify provincial surveillance and reporting.

“It’s unfortunate that there are IT issues but I’m optimistic that on the long-run, once the system is up and running, there will be lots of benefits from the new system,” said Dr. Dominik Mertz, associate professor of infectious diseases at McMaster University. “My understanding is that it will be much more universal across the province and more automatic than what they used to have.”

He points out that public health still has the real-time data it needs to react quickly to changes during the pandemic and it’s only the public reporting that is delayed.

“It’s not significant in terms of affecting the response to the pandemic in any way,” he said. “It’s unfortunate for those who may be looking at that on a regular basis that they have to wait a day longer until they see what’s happening.”

He said the numbers have not been changing substantially in less than 48 hours.

“I don’t think it’s a lot of added value for an individual in the current situation, where things are relatively stable, to necessarily have to see the data on a daily basis,” said Mertz.

But Mehra argues the public is starting to “slack off” on health measures to combat the spread of the virus, making current numbers more important than ever. Hamilton saw an increase in COVID-19 over the last week of August that public health said was due partly to social gatherings with no physical distancing.

“Everywhere I go I see people are standing very close, much more closely than they were two months ago,” said Mehra. “The more details that are given to the public, the more ability there is for people to understand that this is not gone and to not get lax about it.”

Public health said in a statement that the delay will ensure the public has access to the most “complete information possible, which is a critical element in our successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic situation.”

When it comes to the exposure information being removed from public reporting altogether, the statement said, “We understand this information is important to the public and it will be reposted as soon as possible.”

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