Information commissioner sides with GN over release of COVID-19 data

Citizen requested information on vaccination status, age and health conditions of people hospitalized with coronavirus

A person requested the Government of Nunavut create certain statistics related to COVID-19, but the information and privacy commissioner accepted the GN’s argument that it did not have the equipment or staff to do so without unreasonably interfering with normal operations. (File photo by Mélanie Ritchot)

By David Lochead

Nunavut’s Health Department is not required to create new types of COVID-19 statistics despite a citizen’s formal request for that information, according to a review by Nunavut’s information and privacy commissioner Graham Steele.

“It raises a really interesting issue,” Steele said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News.

“If the government doesn’t hold a record, to what extent does it have to create a new record in response to an access to information request?”

The commissioner’s report comes after an applicant, whom the report did not identify, requested a variety of COVID-19 information from the Health Department on Jan. 17.

That included: vaccination status of all the individuals who tested positive for COVID-19; also the age, vaccination status and other health conditions of individuals who were hospitalized for COVID-19.

The department responded by giving the applicant the number of people hospitalized from COVID-19, which was 13, but no more information.

In turn, that person applied for an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, known as ATIPPA, review from the commissioner.

Steele ended up siding with the Department of Health’s argument that it shouldn’t have to provide that information, despite rejecting three of its four arguments for not doing so.

The argument Steele did accept is that the department had not generated the statistics requested so it did not have a duty to create them.

In his report, Steele stated a public body does have a partial duty to create information, but that is only the case when it is feasible. For the Health Department, it was not.

Gathering the information the applicant requested would have taken department staff up to nine days’ work and unreasonably interfered with the operations of Health Department branches working on COVID-19, the report stated.

The main reasons that gathering the data the applicant sought would be such a strain were a lack of staffing and not having medical equipment capable of quickly collecting health information.

In the report, Nunavut’s chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson said six or seven out of 20 staff positions are vacant in the health protection branch.

Meanwhile, only one epidemiologist has the skills needed to fully operate Nunavut’s software system, called MediTech, which does not have the ability to gather medical information like systems in other provinces.

“It doesn’t take much to put a strain on government operations,” Steele said in the interview, regarding GN vacancies and overworked staff.

“That’s an issue that’s lurking in the background.”

However, Steele did not accept the department’s three other reasons for not acting to provide the information.

That included the GN citing the wording in the request as being aligned with an anti-vaccination stance. Steele’s report rejected that, stating it is the nature of the information itself that is important, not the perceived intentions of the person requesting it.

Steele also disagreed with the department’s contention that gathering the statistics would involve releasing personal information.

He said gathering medical statistics without identity is not personal information, that decision is made once the statistics are gathered first

Steele also disagreed with the Health Department’s contention that the information the applicant was requesting would be “accounted for” in a report to be made to the GN in the fall of 2022.

That commitment was too vague, he said.

 

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Listener on

    So am I reading this right, that it was not fesable, and too much work for the health dept to tell us the statistics of 13 hospitalized covid patients? Not to know them personally, but to educate ourselves with true facts? An afternoon of phone calls is all that should take. If it smells like a cover-up…..

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      • Posted by Northerner also on

        John K, you seem quick to criticize everyone that you post under, but never actually give any relevant information yourself. This seems to be a common trend as of late,

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        • Posted by John K on

          This response needs no more explanation.

          I posted a slightly more substantive comment below.

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    • Posted by Missing Information on

      You have missed the largest portion of the request for information – the vaccination status of everyone who tested positive for Covid. This would require a significant amount of work to compile all of the details.

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    • Posted by Northern Guy on

      Determining the vaccination status of every positive Covid case in Nunavut would be a massive undertaking that is likely impossible if the data is not already aggregated by the Health Department. This isn’t a cover up this is an overworked department unwilling to create new datasets just to help some anti-vaxxer make his/her case.

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  2. Posted by No Data on

    We are told that there were 13 hospitalizations, but that it was too hard to report statistics on those 13 people.
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    From now on the GN will not collect any data at all unless they know, in advance, that the data wil shine a positive light on GN operations.
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    Congratulations, Mr. Steele. In one move you have transformed the GN from an organization with abismal data collection and analysis into one that will have none at all. The result will be that no GN decisions will be based upon data.
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    We thank you. Not.

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    • Posted by Northern Guy on

      Re-read the article, what you suggest wasn’t what was being requested

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  3. Posted by John K on

    Good job Mr. Steele.

    Our healthcare workers have more important things to concern themselves with than catering to the whims of bad faith actors from the general public.

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  4. Posted by Southern Observer on

    Well done Mr. Steele. Your sound reasoning demonstrates a balance between operational realities and a duty to the public.

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