Some northeastern Ontario mayors want health units to list COVID cases for each community

On top of fighting COVID-19, some mayors in the northeast are also fighting with their local public health officials.

None of the health units in the region are releasing the number of COVID-19 cases for each city, town, township or First Nation.

Public health officials say it’s to protect personal privacy.

Most health units were only releasing numbers for the entire district at first, but now break down the data into smaller regions.

Algoma Public Health breaks down its coverage area into four zones, which it says it started doing in mid-April when the district hit a certain number of cases.

The health unit has also said that if Algoma sees a wider outbreak that more specific information could be provided. 

But Elliot Lake Mayor Dan Marchisella believes the release of more information has more to do with his speaking out and demanding to know how many COVID-19 cases there are in his community. 

He says Elliot Lake has three coronavirus cases so far, but adds that he pieced that together from social media, and the health unit is only telling him that there are “less than five” cases in “Elliot Lake and area.”

Marchisella says public health officials have told him they are trying to protect the privacy of patients, but he believes it has more to do with “laziness.”

“You’re not breaching anybody’s privacy by telling us. It would be a long shot to guess one person out of 11,000,” he says.

“Once you have an outbreak in your community it’s a little too late to be begging for that information.”

Elliot Lake Mayor Marchisella accuses Algoma Public Health of “laziness” in not providing COVID data specific to his city. (Erik White/CBC )

Marchisella and other Algoma mayors have asked the province to intervene, but have not received any response. 

“It’s a healthy tension we have with Algoma Public Health. If I were to give them a mark I would say 95 per cent. Just give us 5 per cent on the statistical information and we’ll be happy campers,” says Blind River Mayor Sally Hagman.

She says she only knows from Algoma Public Health that there are less than five cases in what’s called “east and central Algoma.”

Hagman says in her town of 3,600 she’s noticed a “continuum of being very paranoid to being very laissez faire” about the spread of the virus.

“What this information gives our communities is data to either ramp up or to know we’re doing exactly what we should be doing,” she says.

“We don’t need to know who they are, we just need to know the numbers for the community.”

Dr. Glenn Corneil, acting medical officer of health for Timiskaming, says at first they were only reporting data for the entire district, but without a case for the last two weeks, they are now listing it by specific regions within Timiskaming, but not by community.

“Even if your neighbour next door to you had COVID, it shouldn’t change what you’re doing. The messaging is don’t be falsely reassured if there’s not many cases in your community,” he says.

When the district saw a whooping cough outbreak in December, specific numbers were provided for New Liskeard and Kirkland Lake, but Corneil says there wasn’t a risk of “public shaming and harassment” as there is with coronavirus.

All health units are also specifically naming which nursing homes are seeing COVID-19 outbreaks, but Sudbury-Manitoulin medical officer of health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe says those are “very different circumstances.”

Cities and towns do contribute annual funding to local health units and Marchisella says Elliot Lake expects “better service” for its tax dollars than this.

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