Why Manitoba keeps Winnipeg’s COVID-19 geography under wraps

By | September 1, 2020

As the number of COVID-19 cases soars to unprecedented heights in Manitoba, it’s clear some parts of the province are getting hit harder by the pandemic than others.

Brandon, Manitoba’s second-largest city, has the most active cases in the province and one of the highest per-capita caseloads of any urban area in Canada.

Cities as diverse as Selkirk, Dauphin and Thompson have no active cases at all.

Rural areas run the gamut from being utterly devoid of the disease, like the rural municipality of Stanley in southern Manitoba is at the moment, to struggling with the burden of an eye-popping active caseload, the way the Asessippi region along the Saskatchewan border happens to be right now.

This somewhat detailed picture of COVID-19 in Manitoba is the result of a change public health officials made in the middle of August, when they started breaking down coronavirus cases into 68 separate health districts.

The full geographic picture of COVID-19, however, remains obscure in Manitoba. That’s because the largest population centre in the province — Winnipeg, home to 775,000 of the 1.38 million people in Manitoba — is treated as a single health district for the purposes of pandemic disclosure.

This is not because the Winnipeg Health Region governs itself as a monolith. There are 12 separate community areas within the Winnipeg Health region — plus an exclave up in Churchill, along Hudson Bay.

Each of those health community areas within the city itself is divided into neighbourhood clusters, most of them with larger populations than all but a handful of the 67 other health districts in Manitoba.

In other words, public health officials know precisely where in Winnipeg COVID-19 cases are located. They simply choose not to disclose this information.

‘We want people to focus on those fundamentals’: Roussin

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, says there is no practical use in knowing the geographic location of COVID-19 patients within the city.

Someone who lives in one neighbourhood may work in another and shop or eat or visit in a third, fourth or fifth, he says.

“We want to report information that’s useful for the decisions the public makes,” Roussin said Monday during one of his regular briefings.

“If you saw a hotspot in a certain community area in Winnipeg, I don’t know how that would affect your behaviour.”

There are problems with this logic. Commuter data compiled by Statistics Canada casts doubt on the idea Winnipeggers buzz all over their city like a swarm of yellow jacket wasps on a late-summer picnic table.

In short, most Winnipeggers don’t work all that far from home. Two-thirds of Winnipeggers commuted to work or school for less than half an hour in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said there is no practical use in knowing where cases are inside the city. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

More fatal to Roussin’s logic is data from his own department. The province’s own COVID-19 reporting suggests 54 per cent of Manitobans who contracted the disease caught the virus from a close contact — in most cases, a family member or roommate dwelling within their own home.

This suggests there would be a strong correlation between neighbourhoods where a relatively high proportion of COVID-19 patients live and neighbourhoods where transmission is occurring at a relatively high rate.

Roussin, nonetheless, sees the release of this sort of information as a distraction that could provide some Winnipeggers with a false sense of security, which in turn could lead to some people taking fewer precautions against the disease, such as handwashing and physical distancing.

“The downside I see to releasing geographic data is because we want people to focus on those fundamentals, wherever they are,” he said.

“If, for instance, in western Winnipeg, there seemed to be less cases, people will [say], ‘I should frequent more restaurants in that area.’ It just is not advisable. That’s not going to protect you.”

One expert in community health science said he would appreciate a gander at the information. 

“I’d like to know more about the geography inside the city of Winnipeg,” said Dan Chateau, an assistant professor of community health science at the University of Manitoba. “Are they cases in Transcona? Are they cases here in River Heights? Are they in the North End?”

Info could be useful for public, at-risk groups: professor

This is not just a matter of throwing up a map of the city and lighting up the neighbourhoods with heavy caseloads.

In cities such as Toronto and Montreal, the release of more detailed geographic information about COVID-19 cases has allowed researchers and government policy-makers to determine how income, ethnicity, education and access to proper housing affects the likelihood of contracting the disease.

In Montreal, for example, the poorest, most cramped and most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods turned out to be hit harder by the pandemic than more affluent, less diverse areas with better housing, according to a CBC News analysis in June.

Data released in Quebec creates a detailed geographic picture of COVID-19 in Montreal. This information can then be analyzed along with census data to see how income, ethnicity, university education and the quality of housing is correlated to contracting the virus. (CBC News)

Other media in other cities have uncovered similar patterns. This is impossible to do in Winnipeg, where the information is simply kept under wraps.

“Why aren’t they sharing that information [in Winnipeg] as well? It’s something that entered my mind,” said Chateau.

“That may be useful information for the public to know, right? Particularly if you’re in those risk groups, to know that they’re paying attention to that and they’re planning for it?”

The province is capable of crunching its own COVID-19 demographic numbers. Manitoba started compiling ethnic data related to COVID-19 patients this spring and has put together a working group with Black, Indigenous and other people of colour to determine how this information will be used.

“This working group is actively deliberating on processes for data governance, communication strategies and mechanisms that will result in the maximum benefits that can occur through collecting [ethnic] data while minimizing the well-known risks of inappropriate stigmatization that can occur if the data is used inappropriately,” public health said Monday in a statement.

Roussin said he is open to the idea of releasing the results of future provincial data analysis. In the mean time, journalists and academics with no access to internal public-health data cannot draw their own conclusions or hold governments accountable for policy decisions.

Chateau said if governments decide not to release geographic information related to COVID-19 cases, they must provide the public with a rationale for that decision.

“The information about income or ethnicity, I wouldn’t find that useful, personally,” he said, adding he would simply like to know where the cases are. 

“But I can understand that some people want to know this information. If there isn’t a reason to not share it, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be shared.”

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