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Opinion: Peep show of secret COVID-19 data reveals vaccine urgency

Concern about vaccine hesitancy and complacency may be behind documents leaked to major Vancouver daily revealing spread of variants, neighbourhood-level maps and vaccine rates
Drive-thru vax 4
Port Coquitlam's Rowena Cando, 57, receives a dose of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru vaccination centre in Coquitlam, B.C., May 5, 2021.

Why now? 

That’s the question that has reporters and researchers across Metro Vancouver scratching their heads this week after someone leaked detailed COVID-19 data to a major daily newspaper.

It’s been something that’s been missing for months from daily COVID-19 bulletins — precise information about who is getting COVID-19 and why.

A pair of internal reports compiled by the BC Centre of Disease Control and revealed to the Vancouver Sun show specific details about COVID-19 case maps down to the neighbourhood level, vaccination rates and variants of concern.

Like a peep show, where for a coin you can witness a scantily-clad woman for a brief time before the money runs out, these details are a snapshot of a larger picture that has taken months to develop.

We journalists don’t like it when information is withheld from us. But there are bigger concerns other than sheer nosiness, as academics and researchers have argued.

They say more information would enable them to provide more accurate calculations and create more understanding about the impacts of the pandemic on specific groups.


It would also help people better assess their risks, as when a church group wants to open up in a high-transmission area but with new data changes its mind. This data would have been extremely helpful after spring break as it seemed case counts rose inexplicably.

The argument presented for not providing this information has been privacy: providing it would have been too resource-heavy, and officials were concerned that revealing data at a neighbourhood level would create stigma.

Come on, we’re all adults here, we don’t need to be shielded from scary information. And keeping information quiet hasn’t stopped racist behaviour nor finger-pointing.

I think I know why this information was leaked now. It’s because there’s a worry about vaccine complacency and hesitancy — a phenomenon witnessed in the U.S. where there’s more vaccine than people willing to get a jab.

If the goal is to reach a high level of community immunity, as much as 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated, including children, and concerns about blood clots and mixed messages coming from NACI (National Advisory Committee on Immunization) about AstraZeneca, may put off a small but significant number of people who will delay or even not bother to get a shot.

There’s an urgency now that it has been identified that as many as 19 Fraser Health neighbourhoods have higher rates of COVID-19, including Port Coquitlam, and the race is on to get everyone in those areas vaccinated.

The seriousness of the situation we now face — as the documents reveal that 78% of screened cases are variants — is likely the reason someone leaked these documents to the Vancouver Sun.

Now that B.C. expects to be swamped with Pfizer doses, the time seemed ripe to provide the information.

Whether a courageous act by a frustrated epidemiologist or simply part of a bigger awareness campaign, I don’t know.

However, now that the information is out there, like a peep show, we don’t want to see it end.