Opinion: B.C. government’s withholding of COVID-19 data sows harmful distrust

Sowing harmful distrust

An Open Letter to Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry:

In my capacity as vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media, I am writing to express grave concern about the provincial government’s information policies and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic and their impact on the public’s right to know.

We are now in the second year of this battle to suppress the coronavirus. As media we take seriously our integral role in safekeeping the public from harm’s way. We have devoted enormous resources in this last year under difficult physical and economic circumstances to proudly perform our duties.

But a pattern of behaviour has emerged within this provincial government that fails to provide timely, accurate, detailed and frank information about the pandemic. This is deeply worrisome for the public we serve and you serve.

This strict and often harmful control of information has contributed to an increased public mistrust in the handling of the pandemic. We hear of this each day in our work-from-home newsrooms, and in many cases the public frustration is directed at us for not telling the full story, for defending authorities, even for being your puppets.

It is time for you to fix this problem promptly.

Data on the coronavirus in some provinces is provided by city block. In ours, it is provided generally by health authority region and only in a few cases by municipality or districts within them.

Information on occupational infection, critical in understanding the health of our province’s frontline workers, is not disclosed.

Age-related data on infections, essential in understanding the trajectory of the coronavirus, arrives many days late and is often at odds with earlier caseload data.

School exposures, some of the most critical data in mitigating community risk and managing community concerns, are not released for several days until contact tracing is conducted.

The R-value data, the crucial information on how many people on average are infected by individuals with COVID-19, is distorted by the exclusion of outbreaks and released only once a month.

Beyond those insufficiencies is a profound disservice to journalists attempting to fulfil their functions in a public emergency. It is well past time we cited these fault lines.

It is taking days to receive simple responses to our questions. It is policy to deny the most basic information about the local, regional or provincial presence of COVID-19. It is basic common sense in a crisis to not have a three-day gap each week between media briefings on caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths. These briefings should provide more generous time for questions and for journalists from outside the legislative press gallery in other regions of the province.

Our access to government health experts has been cut off. Apart from the briefings by the premier, the health minister and the provincial health officer, media may deal only with communications specialists. We are having to rely more and more often on anonymous sources when we, and the province we serve, deserve on-the-record public accountability.

When our queries are thwarted and we resort to freedom-of-information requests, we have been routinely denied the information and told there are privacy issues. Other jurisdictions have conquered that base canard, but British Columbia has taken a unique and restrictive position on the matter.

One of our reporters wrote me this week to say, in part: “The lack of factual information makes it impossible to really present a full picture to the public of what is happening in the pandemic—who is getting sick and how/why and what has happened in the most serious situations. Especially in local areas.”

She added: “The queries I get from the public tell me that this is information the public wants. Citizens aren't children. They have the right to this information in order to both assess their own degree of risk and behaviour and to assess whether government policies and actions are appropriate.”

Some of our editors provided examples of the deficiencies worth noting:

•Our Bowen Island publication has yet to be told officially, one year into the health crisis, whether there have been any COVID-19 cases there. Its data is combined with that of West Vancouver.

•Our Delta publication cannot get distinct COVID-19 numbers for such specific locations as North Delta, Tsawwassen and Ladner or of the ages of those with coronavirus.

•Our Whistler publication asks each week for coronavirus numbers for the community. Only twice in the year has it received the information in time for its weekly newspaper deadline. During the recent serious outbreak, this data was constantly outdated.

•Our North Shore publication, during the outbreaks in care homes last spring, could not get the number of COVID-19 cases in them in a timely manner. It was provided information on the most recent hospital outbreak only a month later. To date it is not informed on how many infected patients are admitted to hospital or where they are from.

•Our Interior publication said it took a local doctor and the mayor at Sun Peaks to provide basic information on case counts at the resort. The health authority refused to provide numbers because an outbreak has not been declared formally. Until December, regional case data was broken into four regions within the Interior, a region larger than most European countries.

•Our Sunshine Coast publication learned without any official notice that several vaccination clinics had without warning been closed and were centralized in Sechelt in the region.

As the British Columbia media outlet with the largest online and print audience, we are prepared to help the province furnish comprehensive, coherent information amid record caseloads and a frustrating third wave.

But the onus is on this government to do what individuals and businesses have done in the pandemic – to “pivot” its approach, to trust the public and media with information to achieve a better health outcome. We welcome an immediate dialogue on this urgent matter.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

OpEd: Acknowledging the empty seat: Five years into overdose public health emergency

Acknowledge the empty seat

It has been five years since the Provincial Health Officer declared a public health emergency in response to the significant rise in opioid-related overdose deaths reported in B.C.

Since then, more than 7,000 family members, friends, coworkers, teammates, neighbours and friends have been lost to overdose. Thousands more have been impacted and experienced all too painfully the devastation of the emergency in their own lives.

Just like with our current COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid emergency continues to demand a collective response.

Since 2016, we have taken steps forward. Interior Health’s Take Home Naloxone Challenge has seen more than 50 organizations complete naloxone training. Each time the training is provided, more people in our communities have a better understanding of how they can support the people they know or interact with who are living with addiction. They learn about available mental health and substance use services, including new resources.

One of the programs we’ve worked hard to expand in the past five years is Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT), which uses medications to treat opioid addiction, reduce drug-related harms and support long-term recovery. In 2020, close to 4,000 people across IH were able to access this treatment and each be supported in their individual journey.

As well, we have partnered with local municipalities and partners to strengthen overdose prevention services, including easy access to supports and safe consumption, which for many is an entry point to accessing other needed health care.

Two years ago, before COVID-19, provincial data showed our efforts were turning the tide on the opioid overdose crisis. We began voicing cautious optimism; however, with the pandemic last year came new measures and restrictions – and challenges.

While we cannot know the exact impact of COVID-19 on substance use and overdose rates, we do know there are correlations. Border closures may be impacting the illicit drug supply, as people who use drugs rely on unfamiliar sources. They may also be using alone more frequently as people socially distance or self isolate.

Currently, in B.C., more than five people are dying each day of an illicit drug overdose. In 2020, Interior Health recorded 283 overdose deaths, our highest yearly total ever.

This can – and should – make us pause. It should also renew our shared commitment to respond and continue to work together in the face of the opioid overdose public health emergency.

On this sombre five-year anniversary of the public health emergency, Interior Health is absolute in its resolve to keep our focus on reducing the impact of the opioid crisis and we ask you to join us.

Whether you take Naloxone training, learn about and support mental health and substance use initiatives in your community or simply reach out to someone who is struggling – this is the time to act.

So many of us across the Interior have already lost loved ones and been impacted directly by this crisis. We invite you to take a moment to remember those who have struggled with or lost their life to overdose, by sharing a photo and a message on Interior Health Virtual Memory Wall.

Susan Brown, President and CEO, Interior Health

B.C. retail spending continues to rise after December setback

Retail spending rebound

B.C. retail spending rebounded 4.4% in January after a December dip to $8.36 billion, marking its eighth increase in nine months.

Year-over-year sales rose to 15%. In contrast, national sales fell 1.1% from December and rose only 1.3% from a year ago. More stringent physical distancing restrictions in late 2020 directly affected retail activity in several provinces.

B.C. consumer spending picked up speed across store segments.

Sales at motor vehicle and parts dealers rose nearly 5% from December and 30% year-over-year, reflecting demand for private transportation amid the pandemic, low interest rates and high replacement demand.

Meanwhile, sales at electronics and appliance stores (up 43.9% year-over-year) and building material and gardening stores (up 50%) reflects the spillover from strong housing market conditions and renovation spending.

Higher gasoline prices lifted sales at gas stations.

Clothing retailers also saw monthly sales improve, but year-over-year sales activity remained 15% lower as work-from-home, and fewer social options curtailed demand.

The strong upward sales momentum bodes well for 2021 as the economy continues to recover.

Further improvement is expected for clothing retailers as more offices reopen and the pandemic wanes, while a hot housing market will keep demand for ancillary products elevated. That said, expect a rotation in demand and spending back towards retail services such as events and restaurants, while more dollars will leak out of the domestic economy as travel picks up.

B.C.’s housing market remained white hot in February. Multiple Listing Service sales rose 7.2% from January to a seasonally adjusted 12,930 units, marking a record high pace of activity.

Unadjusted February sales were the highest on record at 10,962 units, surging nearly 90% year-over-year and exceeding the 10-year same-month average by 77%.

Robust sales continued across the province, highlighted by strong sales gains in Fraser Valley markets, which rose nearly 15%, and the Interior markets of the Okanagan and surrounding areas (up 13%).

Moreover, sales more than doubled year-ago levels on Vancouver Island, excluding Victoria. •

Bryan Yu is chief economist at Central 1 Credit Union.

Opinion: Independent grocers are a dying breed

Indie grocers are dying

Most of us wouldn’t know if we were in an independently owned and operated grocery store unless a notice is posted somewhere as you enter the store or you ask someone.

Canada regularly loses an independent grocer these days Last week, we learned that Empire (Sobeys) would purchase one of Canada’s top premium independent grocers, Longo Brothers Fruit Markets, located in the greater Toronto area.

The $357-million deal allows Empire to immediately acquire 51 per cent of Longo’s and it will control all of the business in a few years. Longo’s operates 36 beautiful stores in southern Ontario.

Like most independent grocers, Longo’s was truly a family business. Three Longo brothers founded the company in 1956 and more than 25 family members across three generations continue to work in the company.

Canada is home to about 15,500 grocery stores. Less than 34 per cent are independently owned and operated, and that percentage is continuously shrinking. Independent grocers are known to offer something different to customers – products you wouldn’t find elsewhere.

The service is often highly personalized. Some managers know many of their customers on a first-name basis. The experience is often very different and no duplicates exist elsewhere.

Most Canadians wouldn’t know that a lot of the innovation we’ve seen in food retailing in Canada has come from independents.

Longo’s has been in the e-commerce game since 2004, when it acquired Grocery Gateway, at a time when few believed buying food online was even a thing. New products, novel store design – they have brought so much for years.

Farm Boy Markets and Longo’s are just two examples of how independent grocers have a different way of looking at things. It’s refreshing.

Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro are selling almost 75 per cent of all the retailed food in Canada right now, and that percentage has continued to rise. And Costco and Walmart sell a combined $32 billion in food to Canadians, so the pressures on independents are real.

To make matters worse, here’s another pressure point for independents:

Most major grocers are charging more fees to suppliers to finance key strategic initiatives. Just last week, we learned that Walmart plans a $500-million distribution facility to support its e-commerce platform. Some of the funding likely came from suppliers like Kraft Heinz Canada, PepsiCo Canada, Unilever Canada and Lactalis.

Independent grocers are slowly becoming less competitive, since they can’t bully their way through the supply chain as major grocers are doing. They just don’t have enough power and influence.

Empire is the only major grocer in the country to express concerns about extra fees imposed on food manufacturers. It’s affecting our food processing sector’s competitiveness, of course, and it’s affecting how independent grocers keep up with the rest of the field.

This is likely why the Longo family opted to sell. But also given that they had to choose one buyer, it had to be Empire, due to its stance on supply-chain bullying.

The good news is that major grocers are starting to value the uniqueness of some of these retailers.

Years ago, Loblaws destroyed Ontario-based Fortinos and completely changed the in-store experience. And Empire alienated some shoppers in Western Canada when it acquired Safeway in 2013. It scrapped the Safeway loyalty program, and many cherished products were either hard to find or disappeared completely.

All grocers have implemented such drastic changes, and massacred a brand or two in the past. At the time, it was all about consolidation and synergies, at all costs.

But in recent years, the approach appears to have changed. Loblaw’s acquisition of TNT, a unique retailer in Ontario serving the suburban Toronto market, was executed with few hiccups. Most shoppers at Ontario’s Farm Boy, acquired by Sobeys in 2018, have barely seen a difference.

And as in the Farm Boy deal, the Longo executive team will remain at the helm of the company and operate separately from the main company. Longo’s will likely become more profitable by using Sobey’s buying power across the supply chain.

In the meantime, Canadians should be concerned about the fate of our independent grocers. A federal committee is looking into the outrageous fees charged to suppliers by some grocers. For the sake of the independents, let’s hope the committee comes up with some good ideas when it tables its report in July.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Op-ed: B.C. Health critic and Kelowna MLA calls out province's vaccine rollout

Is this the best we can do?

Is this the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out we imagined?

I’m a dreamer, and I love good endings to movies and stories.

I dream of a health care system that’s accessible for everyone. Of a provincial response to the global pandemic that protects our most vulnerable loved ones, and a bright post-pandemic future where we leverage health sector innovations into the future.

But where are the innovations when it comes to the vaccine roll-out in B.C?

While I stand behind the continued hard work of provincial health officials and the public servants in the Ministry of Health, I still have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out and the seeming lack of preparation and clarity from John Horgan and the NDP government that has left people frustrated in the last few weeks.

A central point of concern has been the booking system for vaccine appointments, which this government has had a year to plan. We saw overwhelming frustration when phone lines were overwhelmed on the first day of public vaccine booking, with no online option available to the public. Health authorities across the province have an online booking option for staff vaccine registration available, so why wasn’t a universal online system extended to the public right away?

Health authorities across B.C. are using the same system as Fraser Health to offer online bookings for COVID-19 testing and medical lab appointments. They have used call centres and online registration software for years, yet, after a year of planning these systems weren’t implemented province-wide.

Now here we are, each day learning a new detail wasn’t planned in advance.

Where is the plan to empower our province’s highly trained community pharmacists to join the fight? Only in the last few weeks did we hear they had even been contacted, while other jurisdictions made their plans to engage pharmacists public months ago in their official vaccine rollout strategies.

Is this the best we could prepare for?

Now our province is fortunate to add the AstraZeneca vaccine to its inventory; a vaccine that’s more portable and can be stored in the fridges that pharmacists, family doctors, and nurse practitioners have in their clinics. Yet the province failed to quickly create a clear plan for how our essential workers should be prioritized. Then, they released a list that many feel is incomplete.

Again, is this the best we can do?

I can’t imagine the stress and anxiety our province’s essential workers who were excluded must feel right now. We continue to hear from many excluded workers who are wondering why they were left off the list. They deserve clarity and should have been engaged with from the start with a clear vaccination plan. This government should be honest with them.

We actually wrote to the Minister of Health to ask him to provide transportation workers like bus drivers, taxi drivers, short-haul truckers and longshore workers with greater clarity around why they were not prioritized for a vaccine. Why did this government not engage with these workers from the beginning?

So where do we go from here? I dream of a post-pandemic world where visionary, transformational leadership takes our health care system to the next level.

Dr. Bonnie Henry and the Ministry of Health have done a good job of weathering the pandemic through some of its toughest patches. Real leadership from John Horgan and the NDP, however, has been lacking and we are now paying the price. Our health system needs next-level leadership, not political inaction.

Renee Merrifield

Official Opposition Critic for Health

MLA for Kelowna-Mission

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