‘Extremely paternalistic’: Doctor derides B.C.’s policy on COVID notifications at post-secondary schools

'Extremely paternalistic': Doctor derides B.C.'s policy on COVID notifications at post-secondary schools
Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said during a virtual event hosted by Protect Our Province B.C. on Wednesday that the B.C. government’s decision to discourage post-secondary institutions from issuing exposure notifications is "extremely paternalistic" and unacceptable.

A respected doctor and professor of epidemiology says the B.C. government’s decision to discourage post-secondary institutions from issuing exposure notifications is “extremely paternalistic” and unacceptable.

“I am trying to wrap my mind around this in terms of what the possible rationale for that would be,” Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said during a virtual event hosted by Protect Our Province B.C. on Wednesday. “I think that is bad public health practice and I think that this is a bigger theme with B.C.”

The B.C. government has discouraged post-secondary institutions from issuing their own notifications, unless a regional health authority suggests otherwise, since releasing new guidelines in early September. Those guidelines, available on the BCCDC’s website, suggest that schools shouldn’t issue notifications because transmission is “uncommon” in educational environments.

Fisman, who holds a Master’s in Public Health from Harvard University, said the public cannot take the proper steps to reduce transmission or protect themselves if they aren’t informed.

“People have no ability to use available tools to protect themselves if they’re kept ignorant of risk,” he said.

RELATED: Petition demands B.C. notify public of COVID-19 exposures, outbreaks at post-secondary institutions

When it comes to reporting information to the public, Fisman said provinces in the Maritimes are doing a much better job.

“When I look at reporting from Atlantic provinces that are doing really well, one of the things that they do is that they let people know. It is in the newspapers, it’s on TV, where did the exposures occur,” he said.

Few provinces post any kind of post-secondary exposure notification on their government websites, with New Brunswick and Quebec among the exceptions. But unlike B.C., colleges and universities in other provinces do issue their own notifications when an exposure or potential exposure has occurred.

Fisman said it is important for the public to be made aware of exposure events because knowing where someone became infected can help identify other potential cases. He also said that as taxpayers, the public has a right to know what is going on in their community.

“You pay for that data. This whole public health system is funded by your taxes. I mean, for heaven’s sakes, surely you have a right to know what is going on in your community,” said Fisman, adding. “It just strikes me as extremely paternalistic and it wouldn’t be accepted in clinical medicine and I don’t think it should be acceptable in public health.”

The Ministry of Health has previously told CHEK News that health authorities are responsible for posting exposure notifications for post-secondary institutions and are working closely with the colleges and universities.

“Regional health authorities are closely monitoring exposures, including at colleges and universities. The health authorities are complying with the provincial health officer’s instructions to post potential exposure events on their websites,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said in a statement to CHEK News on Tuesday.

Omicron variant like ‘nothing we’ve ever seen’ before, professor says

During Wednesday’s virtual event, which was hosted by Protect our Province B.C., a group of non-partisan medical professionals formed earlier this fall to start a non-government briefing on the province’s COVID-19 response, Fisman also talked about the omicron variant that was first dedicated in South Africa and has prompted numerous countries around to shut down borders and impose travel restrictions.

“Thanks to very good labs [in South Africa] there they are able to sequence the virus and see that this new virus is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” he said.

Fisman said the variant appears to be far more infectious than the Delta strain, which he noted is highly infectious.

“It is just chock-full of mutations that either are known to enhance transmissibility or virulence or haven’t been seen before … in a virus in the world but has been written of as something that if that happened it would really make the virus more infectious,” he said.

The World Health Organization labelled the new variant a “variant of concern” and named it Omicron last week after researchers in South Africa alerted them to the new mutated strain. Since then, more than 20 countries around the world have identified cases within their borders.

Canada identified its first two cases of the variant on Sunday, both linked to people who had recently travelled to Nigeria. Elsewhere, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Brazil have all reported infections, with many of them linked to travellers arriving from various countries throughout Africa. However, Japan confirmed its second case of the variant on Wednesday, which was linked to a traveller who arrived from Peru following a stopover in Qatar.

Fisman said it is possible that the variant has been around longer than first thought and travel bans targeting south African nations might not make a whole lot of sense given that there appears to be transmission occurring in many places.

“It has been suggested that it probably hasn’t been around for more than two months, so it is quite a new virus which is weird because our Canadian cases, for example, were imported from Nigeria, which is very far from South Africa. A Belgium case was imported from Egypt, which is very very far from South Africa. So, it seems to be all over the place in Africa, or at least, at first, it seemed to be. Now we are learning that it is actually transmitting in the community in the United Kingdom.”

“If that is the case, then travel bans imposed on African countries start to make not a whole lot of sense,” he added.

RELATED: WHO warns new COVID-19 variant poses ‘very high’ risk

With much more to be learned about the Omicron, Fisman stressed that it is better to be vaccinated against the virus than unvaccinated. He also said that COVID-19 is definitely “mega airborne” and that the virus won’t be going away any time soon, if ever.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 is probably not going to be eradicated,” he said, adding later: “We have diseases on planet Earth that we should eradicate, that means they should go extinct, like measles and polio, that we have been trying very hard to get rid of for a long time and they are still around.”

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With files from the Associated Press

Nicholas PescodNicholas Pescod

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