What the Government Isn't Telling Us About COVID
You don't need to watch the movie Fight Club to know what the first rule of fight club is. As we've heard many times, it's "You do not talk about fight club."
As I watched the apparent COVID media strategy of the Alberta government, and several other provincial governments in recent days, I wondered if they're all taking a page out of the 1999 movie?
The information sharing has slowed to a trickle on COVID, despite the fact parts of Canada are clearly seeing a sixth wave. The problem is, they're not talking about it.
During the pandemic, there have been many people, from news reporters, to doctors, to others who have taken the data Alberta Health Services (AHS) has placed on its website and turned it into very useful information. These have included charts and graphs, so detailed that it became very easy to track where we were when it came to COVID.
Perhaps nobody has done this better than journalist Aryn Toombs, who works for the independent news provider LiveWire Calgary. Aryn created the amazing website Charting Alberta COVID and still maintains it.
Several weeks ago, I noticed the detailed information from Aryn and others changed drastically, so I asked Aryn last week whether AHS had cut back on the data it had been sharing with the public.
Here’s Aryn’s reply, reprinted with his permission. “So there's two types of changes that were made: the first was the obvious surface level changes - fewer geo maps, fewer charts, fewer data tables.
The other side is less obvious, but within the data presented, there is less information. The master spreadsheet for example completely removed status for patients, meaning its now impossible to determine active cases, recovered cases, and deaths.
The geo maps that are left have far less information on them, making it harder to determine where in the province things are occurring like spikes in cases or deaths, or where people are being vaccinated.
So it’s a dual combination of less information being presented to the public, but also less data being shared, so that if the public wanted to delve deeper into how things are going in the province, that is no longer possible.
But it’s also worth pointing out that policy changes have rendered even what little data we have left as being mostly useless. The data as its presented now is backwards facing. It’s a historical reflection of what we've seen, because there simply is not enough testing in this province going forward to have a precise picture of where we stand. For that, all we have left is wastewater data, and even that is under the gun.”
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The question is why? Why has AHS suddenly started sharing less data with the public?
It’s not as if AHS is no longer tracking COVID. It is. It has the information. It doesn’t have as much because it stopped much of the testing it was doing months ago. What has changed is, far less is being shared with the public, so the question then becomes, why is this being done?
In my opinion, it’s pretty simple. It’s all part of a general movement in Alberta and many other Canadian provinces to talk less about COVID and share less information. There’s a time-tested public relations practice that if the government spends less time talking about an issue, there’s less media coverage and less of a concern in the minds of most citizens.
Out of sight out of mind.
Granted, there must come a time when this has to happen. We can’t continue to spend truckloads of money on COVID the way we have for the past couple of years. The question is, is now the time to do that, when the sixth wave has already hit in parts of Canada?
Late last week, health officials in Ottawa and eastern Ontario urged people to resume social distancing and wearing a mask indoors. In the last week that masks were mandated in Ontario, around 14,000 new daily cases were discovered. Last week, there were predictions from experts that Ontario will see 100,000 to 120,000 new infections every day very soon.
The sixth wave is already here. Despite that, health restrictions in almost every province have been scrapped. Governments have moved on from COVID. We're on our own now.
The Media Loses Interest in COVID
If the Alberta government does have a strategy to talk less about COVID, it is working.
It’s been weeks since Premier Jason Kenney appeared at a news conference to talk about COVID. Health Minister Jason Copping and the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw now only do one news conference a week and they only talk about some basic data like hospitalizations, ICU cases and deaths. As I watched their news conference last Thursday, I could almost picture them walking a tightrope between saying COVID is still here and we need to take precautions, but not wanting to alarm anyone to raise calls for renewed health restrictions. It was interesting to watch.
Only three reporters attended last week’s news conference and two were at the one the week before. Maybe the media is tired of talking about COVID too. The government’s plan seems to be working.
I would prefer the media to talk about how the data from AHS has changed and why. I know Aryn and others like Dr. Joe Vipond have been making that point for weeks.
Alberta isn’t alone in this effort. Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health hasn’t done a news conference in weeks and Saskatchewan reports COVID numbers even less frequently than Alberta.
The problem is, I’ve seen the following comment so often in social media for the last two weeks that it scares me – “I know more people today with COVID than any time in the last two years.”
Sure, the number of people going to hospital and the ICU with COVID has remained fairly stable. People will get COVID, just like the flu. But do we really know enough about the long-term effects of COVID, to simply say “It’s like the flu. People may get it, but they’ll recover.” Tell that to the millions of COVID long haulers in North America.
Despite that, governments are closing testing sites, sharing less data, talking less about COVID and providing fewer forecasts about what may happen in the future.
The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about fight club. Or COVID apparently now too.