When Kamloops Coun. Bill Sarai learned curlers and spectators were potentially exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Sportsmans bonspiel between March 12 and March 15, that information did not come from the Interior Health Authority.
Instead, it came from someone in the community, who passed the letter to the councillor.
Similarly, the media was not notified of the incident, with KTW and other media outlets receiving information from outside of Interior Health and reporting on the curling centre case as a matter of public interest, due to the number of people who could have potentially been exposed to the virus. Now, questions are arising at city hall about dissemination of information from the health authority as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens.
“How were they going to address this to the general public, who aren’t members of the curling club?” Sarai asked. “That was really, really concerning to me. This should have come out as a public release to let everybody know this was a case that happened there and everybody needs to take the next step.”
Sarai stressed that frontline workers, such as doctors and nurses employed by the health authority, are not at issue, noting they are working hard to keep the public safe. However, his concern is with administration and the communications strategy at Interior Health.
Sarai said Interior Health could have sent out a public release without compromising privacy, as has been the argument from health officials as to why they will not specify where in the health regions cases have been confirmed.
“It seems like they don’t really care about Kamloops and I hate to say that,” Sarai said. “They’re not releasing anything. It’s not going to cause a panic. It’s going to do the reverse. It’s going to wake people up to take this seriously. By them not being transparent and giving us updates, telling us — they’re the lead agency. This isn’t a forest fire. This isn’t a flood, where we need [Kamloops Fire Rescue] chief [Mike] Adams there or the engineer from fisheries and that. This is a health crisis. Interior Health Authority of Kamloops should be front and centre guiding us to let us know that we’re OK, we’re looked after, we’re going to be taken care of no matter what.”
Coun. Denis Walsh agrees with his council colleague, calling it a “duty to the public” for health officials to give the full picture to allow people to understand the seriousness of the situation.
“Silent,” he said when asked of his experience communicating with IHA during the pandemic. “I think they are misguided in their sense that it will create fear in the community. I think it’s the opposite. I think that some people are taking this lightly because they don’t think it’s in Kamloops. They do know now, but they don’t know what level it is. … I have no idea. I’ve not one clue, right? I think there’s a duty to the public to let them know, to realize the seriousness of it.”
Walsh said IH and the city’s Emergency Operations Centre do not have sufficient communications, noting that due to insufficient information, councillors are having to direct people to the health authority.
“To refer people, to say, ‘Just call IH,’ isn’t good enough for me,” Walsh said. “Because they’re overwhelmed.”
KTW contacted Interior Health for a response to the concerns of the Kamloops councillors and received an email message from the media relations department.
“When there is a positive case, the patient receives support from the health authority’s public health teams, but the community is not identified by the province to protect that patient’s identity and to further enable the protection of others by encouraging people to come forward if needed,” the email stated.
“Fundamentally, there is still a lot of stigma and nervousness related to COVID-19 and we need people to feel safe knowing that their identities will be protected if they come forward and are diagnosed with COVID-19.”
The email message quoted provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on the issue.
"Anyone who may be at risk of exposure to COVID-19 gets contacted by the public health officials who are supporting confirmed cases and their close contacts,” Henry said. “We will not be identifying the specific location of confirmed cases unless public health providers cannot be certain they have reached all those who need to be contacted and who, therefore, might be a risk to the public.
"We want people who have symptoms to contact us and to feel safe contacting us, knowing their privacy will be protected so the steps to protect the health and safety for all can be taken. This is why privacy is important to everyone. It allows public health providers to do the work they need to do to keep everybody safe."
The email message said when there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, Interior Health public health officials reach out to people who may have been exposed.
“When we are unable to reach all people in a group, other organizations are asked to distribute the notifications,” the message stated. “We would issue a public service announcement if we are not confident health officials can reach all the individuals who may have been exposed. That decision will be made on the advice of IH medical health officers.”
As for the bonspiel and the confirmed case among someone who attended the event, the Interior Health message stated: “We can confirm notification did occur Sunday for people who attended the Kamloops Curling Bonspiel from March 12-15. This notification went out from the bonspiel organizers at the request of Interior Health.”