Clear data, better testing needed to boost West Koot vax rates, says retired doc

Clear data, testing needed

A retired New Denver physician says Interior Health should be doing a lot more to get West Kootenay COVID-19 vaccination rates higher – or a lot of people could get sick, or even die, this winter.

Miranda Hughes says without more public awareness about the local situation in their towns, and better testing, low vaccination rates in the West Kootenay are not going to improve.

“It’s disappointing, and it's frustrating,” says Hughes, who retired from medicine about five years ago. “I think the vaccine mandate for discretionary recreational and social events served as a useful carrot in a lot of places around BC, but in New Denver we have almost nothing that requires the vaccine, so it hasn’t served that purpose as a bit of a prod.”

It’s not only the mandates and passports that’s failed to spur vaccine uptake, says Hughes. Besides widespread disinformation in social media, she also says a lack of factual data for the situation in local communities from Interior Health hinders people’s understanding of the risk they face.

“We need good data on what’s going on locally, and Interior Health doesn’t give us data that is granular to the level of the Slocan Community Health Centre catchment,” she says. “So early on it was easy to deny we had any local cases when they were showing up in the local health area statistics. People would look at the numbers and say ‘Oh, that’s probably happening in Nakusp.’”

Lacking clear data, Hughes has been poring over source documents online, and has been posting her own graphs and charts detailing cases and vax rates in the Slocan and Arrow Lakes on a Facebook page. Her numbers show that while the province may boast a vaccination rate of a bit over 90%, in the Arrow Lakes subregion it’s far lower than that – closer to 74%.

Hughes also doesn’t trust the reported number of infections in the area, which rarely go beyond a half-dozen or so new cases a week. She thinks the testing system is under-reporting the true number of infections locally. Calling it “kind of a joke,” she says IH isn’t testing fast enough, often enough or close enough to people’s homes. She calls the booking site for COVID testing user-unfriendly, the rules confusing, and the service not in tune with the needs of people living in remote, isolated communities.

“At the regional level, there are barriers to getting tested – social and psychological,” she says. “But there’s also physical barriers, scheduling barriers and logistical barriers.

“Positive cases are not getting identified, not getting reported, so the data we get is not reflective of the local situation, which serves as a further disincentive to getting tested – because why bother, when the numbers don’t make any sense?”

Hughes says IH has to make testing readily available – local, and daily.

“If you have symptoms on a Saturday, but you have to wait until Thursday to get tested, then wait three days for the results, and a few more days for contact tracing, by then it’s two generations in, it’s already spread twice,” she says. “It’s ridiculous we’re in that kind of a situation.”

She also says the system for reporting COVID exposure incidents in schools is broken. She noted one recent example where it took more than a week to get a notice to the public of an exposure event in Lucerne School in New Denver.

Hughes is doing her part to get that factual information out there. Fed up with trying to change the debate by engaging with commenters online (always a bad idea), Hughes instead created her own Facebook page to provide accurate data about the COVID situation in the West Kootenay.

She regularly updates the page (‘Public Health info hub for the North Slocan Valley’) with graphs and other data about case rates, vaccination levels and other factual data.

“I post information, post good scientific studies and data relevant to locals to share as they see fit, rather than get into conflict-ridden situations in discussion threads,” she says. “I can keep it clean and free of controversy.”

While Hughes hopes her page does some good in moving the vaccination levels higher, she says Interior Health has to do much more in public outreach, testing, and information release.

“I’m concerned. I think we may have a winter of ongoing cases, and people who get seriously ill or die, unless we can start getting really good data on cases that pop up, immediately,” she says. “That’s the only hope for controlling local transmission over the next few months.”

New vax clinics

Meanwhile, Interior Health has announced a new round of COVID-19 vaccination clinics in the Arrow Lakes and Nelson sub-regions – some being held in communities that have not had a clinic for months, if at all.

IH will be holding clinics in the usual centres in the West Kootenay – in Nakusp, Kaslo, Castlegar and Nelson – but also in Fauquier (December 3, 4), Silverton (December 10, 11), and Slocan Village (December 16, 17, 18).

The clinics are drop-in for people needing their first or second vaccine dose, and for people booked to get booster shots. The shots for children 5-12 will also be available.

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