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

Petition demands B.C. notify public of COVID-19 exposures, outbreaks at post-secondary institutions
The Vancouver Island University Faculty Association has launched a petition demanding the Ministry of Health immediately begin posting COVID-19 exposure, cluster, or outbreak event notifications that have occurred at a post-secondary campus on the regional health authorities' websites. (CHEK News)

A group of faculty associations wants British Columbians to be notified about any potential COVID-19 exposures at post-secondary institutions.

The Vancouver Island University Faculty Association has launched a petition demanding the Ministry of Health immediately begin posting COVID-19 exposure, cluster, or outbreak event notifications that have occurred at a post-secondary campus on the regional health authorities’ websites.

It also calls on the B.C. government to provide “consistent procedures” for all faculty, staff, and students to notify their classes, colleagues, and fellow students about any potential exposures, clusters, or outbreaks in their classrooms or other-related settings on campus.

The petition, which has more than 1,100 signatures since its creation, has the support of multiple faculty associations, on-campus unions including the University of Victoria Faculty Association, Simon Fraser University Faculty Association, Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association. It also has the support of the BCGEU – Local 702, UVic Graduate Students Society and the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia.

Chris Alemany, the petition’s creator and member of the Vancouver Island University Faculty Association, told CHEK News the petition is an attempt to get more information from the province about potential COVID-19 exposures at post-secondary institutions.

“We know there have been people who have had COVID-19 on campus who have been in class and whatnot, but there has been very little [information],” said Alemany, who works as a technician at VIU.

“There is just no communication whatsoever and it has been a concern.”

RELATED: UVic student tests positive for COVID-19

Unlike K-12 schools, health authorities in British Columbia rarely issue exposure notifications for post-secondary institutions, which often have thousands of students and staff on campus throughout the day.

The B.C. government also appears to actively discourage schools from issuing their own notifications — either publicly or internally — unless a regional health authority suggests otherwise, according to documents available on the BCCDC’s website.

“Since COVID-19 transmission is uncommon in educational settings, in most cases, public health notifications to the campus community will not be required,” reads a paragraph in the Campus Public Health Guidance document. “Please do not notify faculty, staff, or students about potential or confirmed communicable disease cases (including COVID-19) unless requested to do so by the local Medical Health Officer.”

In the rare event that a college or university chooses to notify the public, the B.C. government urges them to stick to a communication narrative that includes saying “educational settings are low-risk settings” for transmission — without providing any supporting data — and that public health authorities are responsible for “determining notification processes and requirements” for confirmed cases of COVID-19.

During the early phases of the pandemic some post-secondary schools, including the University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University, issued their own notifications — a practice that has all but stopped since the B.C. government released the campus guidelines in early September.

Alemany said it isn’t just faculty members who are concerned about the lack of communication, but students too. He said with some campuses having more than 10,000 people coming and going on a daily basis, there should be far more information provided to faculty and students.

“There are a huge amount of people moving through these campuses in different ways and there is absolutely no information being provided on what is happening in those areas,” said Alemany.

MORE: Horgan claims B.C. is transparent as anywhere in North America with its COVID-19 data — but is he right?

British Columbia is by no means the only province not to provide information about exposures at post-secondary institutions.

Few provinces directly post some type of notification regarding either possible exposure, outbreak, or active cases at post-secondary institution campuses on their official websites, with the exceptions being News Brunswick and Quebec.

In Ontario, the government does not list notifications on any of its websites but appears to leave it up to local or regional governments and health authorities. For example, Waterloo Region — home to Congesota College, University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University among others — specifically includes case data for post-secondary schools, while the City of Toronto does not. Some schools are also issuing their own notifications including the University of Toronto and Laurier.

Other provinces such as Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan don’t post COVID-19 exposure or outbreak information either but post-secondary institutions in those provinces, including the University of Alberta, University of Manitoba, Dalhousie University and St. Francis Xavier University, have also been issuing their own notifications.

Additionally, University Affairs magazine provides regular updates of exposures at various schools nationwide based on data gleaned from either the institution’s website or a government agency website.

However, what appears to make B.C. unique from other provinces is that universities or colleges appear to be discouraged from self-notifying their faculty and students about any exposures.

“Faulty and staff are being asked not to notify people and there is just no communication,” said Alemany. “There is really nothing.”

Alemany noted that employees at other workplace settings are informed when their coworkers or clients test positive for COVID-19 and wonders why it isn’t the same for faculty employees and students.

“If it was a person working at Starbucks or at a grocery store, they would likely know if any employee came in and was eventually COVID-positive just through natural communication within that workplace. But in a post-secondary institution, the guidelines … is to not inform the general community,” he said. “It is a really strange disconnect from a regular workplace where you would just naturally know whether your colleagues or clients were positive and had to go on leave or not.”

RELATED: Island Health warns of possible COVID-19 exposure at UVic, Saanich Commonwealth Place

A spokesperson with the Vancouver Island University said in an e-mailed statement that their approach to handling exposures is based on guidelines established by Dr. Bonnie Henry, which is that Island Health is responsible for the notification of exposures.

“Island Health is responsible for all contact tracing, exposure notification and any outbreak management. VIU’s approach is based on the latest guidance provided by the Public Health Office and the BCCDC. If further health measures or reporting structures are introduced, we are ready to move quickly to implement them.”

The university, which has campuses in Nanaimo, Cowichan Valley, Parksville and Powell River and a student population of around 14,500, stressed they continue to work closely with Island Health and the province to ensure they’re following all health and safety guidelines.

“VIU continues to work closely with Island Health and the Public Health Office to ensure we are following all health and safety protocols and recommendations to keep our community safe and healthy.”

In response to a series of questions from CHEK News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said that web postings are “for public awareness only” and that health authorities are responsible for posting exposure notifications for post-secondary institutions.

“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.”

The Ministry also said that staff at regional health authorities and post-secondary institutions throughout the province are working to ensure timely information is provided in the event of an exposure.

“Staff at health authorities and post-secondary institutions are working hard to ensure that colleges and universities are safe for students, faculty and staff, and that people are provided with the information they need if they are at risk of exposure.”

CHEK News has reached out to Island Health for more information.

To view the petition, click here.

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Nicholas PescodNicholas Pescod

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