Where are the COVID-19 infections in West Niagara coming from? It’s a secret

The Niagara Region’s public health unit doesn’t want the public to know precisely how many COVID-19 cases are in each West Niagara community or where the infections are coming from.

When asked for the source of the known infections in West Niagara communities Meredith Maxwell, a spokesperson for Niagara Region Public Health, won’t say. “We do not disclose details about individual COVID cases. Thank you, and we have no further comments,” she said in an email to Niagara Info last week.

NRPH does not reveal locations, types of locations, or names of people infected or where they may have contracted COVID-19 in their communities.

For example, if a neighbour three doors down was infected at work, their neighbors would never know unless they were contacted by a public health official as part of a contact tracing effort. That is where public health employees track people a person who has tested positive has been in contact with.

Do infections get transmitted in restaurants, as the NRPH’s acting chief medical officer Dr. Mustafa Hirji claims? If they do he won’t provide data to back it up. It is not reported anywhere publically. All Hirji has to show is a pie chart that he showed to Niagara Regional Council’s emergency meeting in November.

outbreak cases by source
COVID-19 outbreak cases by source Oct 1 to Nov 15 as reported by Mustafa Hirji. Source: NRPH

It is all hidden under the excuse of “privacy”.

And yet if you want to know which restaurant has failed a food safety inspection. That information is public. NRPH even published a media release about the information on its website availability recently. Want to know if your local fish and chip shop has received a citation? Or if a beach or tattoo parlor has health alerts You can search it here. Not so for COVID-19 infections.

The Niagara Region’s health unit reports to the Ontario Ministry of Health in the provincial government. Niagara Info asked the ministry’s communications branch for the rules behind the disclosure of local COVID-19 information.

After promises of information, there has been no further response. Seven days later a Ministry of Health representative’s only response was “We are working to get this to you as soon as we can.”.

Judging by the Ministry of Health’s actions, timeliness and transparency are not important, at least when it comes to the Niagara Region.

Niagara Info asked Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff to assist in getting answers and on Tuesday (Dec. 15) he promised to pursue the information. (We will update.)

The most information the NPRH does share publically is infections at the region’s schools. Then the information is shared through the school boards, which reliably have been putting out boilerplate alerts when advised by NRPH of cases in schools throughout the pandemic. However, the school boards and the NRPH will not say if the infection was detected in staff members or students citing privacy reasons.

The NRPH will tell you if a restaurant has failed a visit by a health inspector with regard to food safety. It put a public advisory out last week reminding Niagara resident to check it public database on restaurants they frequent. See the advisory reported by Niagara Info here.

That data however does show up later on the province’s website at Ontario.ca but the data is incomplete and rarely timely. We report more on that here. (See more on known school COVID-19 infections at the bottom of this page.)

Source of West Niagara COVID-19 infections?

NRPH’s Maxwell speaks on behalf of Hirji, whose position gives him the authority to do whatever he thinks is right for the region. Provincial legislation protects him from influence from elected officials.

Hirji recently ignored a recommendation from the Niagara Regional Council that asked after an emergency council meeting him to repeal his Section 22 order that forces restaurants to turn away business if a group of diners is not from the same household, unless they physical or emotionally “support” another person. That statement was left open for interpretation in the order. When pushed by council, Hirji said the support person could include someone’s best friend or member of their family in another household.

Regardless of the vague nature of the detail in Hirji’s order, failure to follow the order can result in a fine “of not more than $5,000 for every day or part of each day on which the offence occurs or continues.”

Regional Council also asked Hirji to publically release the names of people or businesses or businesses charged with violating his order. So far he has ignored that recommendation too. As a release from Niagara Regional Police Service, Monday did not identify the Niagara Falls hotel where an illegal party, that broke the provincial gathering rules, was broken up by police. The people fined were not identified either.

NRPH rejects queries on the basis of ‘privacy reasons’

If a COVID-19 case occurs at a specific business or private home or another facility, the NRPH will not reveal any source details to the public. It cites privacy reasons, but won’t elaborate further on its reasons or the rational behind the strategy.

NRPH says that it monitors all cases of COVID-19. “Where a group of cases (is) linked together, they are generally considered to constitute an outbreak. If the link amongst cases is in a workplace, we would typically consider an outbreak to exist in that workplace,” its policy says.

So who gets the information about a specific infection or outbreak? The mayors sit on the regional council. They get more detailed information than the public on case counts. However, that data is not shared with the public.

When asked about a rumored COVID-19 infection at a Grimsby business that Niagara Info was trying to corroborate, Grimsby town manager Harry Schlange said: “I have no details.”

Schlange and Lincoln town manager Mike Kirkopoulos have both been asked by Niagara Info on what non-public information the towns do receive from NRPH.

Schlange referred the question to NRPH. Kirkopoulos responded, but has yet to provide details.

So who gets the information about where infections occur? It appears to be NRPH and only those that are directly impacted.

NRPH said, “outbreaks are communicated to those persons who are affected by the outbreak, by whichever party is responsible for the location of an outbreak.”

That information and much of what follows comes from a NRPH policy Maxwell provided to Niagara Info.

For example, in a workplace, the employer would communicate to the employees, clients, and visitors affected. Public health would typically then communicate with those persons as part of our contact tracing efforts.

Employers must tell employees about infections

If a worker is affected by a COVID-19 in their workplace, their employer is required to tell them.

NRPH policy says: “Public Health publicizes outbreaks when there is a risk to the broader public, and the public needs to know about it to protect their health.”

So at NRPH’s discretion, you will only learn about an outbreak in the community if it deems the public is at risk.

No risk? It remains secret unless scrutinized

The NRPH policy also says: “Where there is no risk to the public at large, Public Health will typically not publicize the outbreak. Exceptions are if there is likely to be unusual public interest or scrutiny of that location.”

In other words, if the media gets wind of it, or an elected official chooses to share the information, then NRPH will be forced to say something about it.

That was the case with the Pioneer Flower Farms outbreak in St. Catharines where up to 40 people were sickened by COVID-19. The St. Catharines Standard wrote a story on the outbreak.

The final piece of the policy shared by Maxwell is: “NRPH will share information about outbreaks in health care institutions. This is done given the need for primary care providers, hospitals, and long term care homes, emergency medical services, and other health care organizations to manage the flow of patients and staff between institutions safely. Given the large numbers of such health care parties and their continually changing membership, public notification is the most practical way to ensure all parties are aware.”

So what do we know about COVID-19 infections in West Niagara communities?

Let’s start with the schools.

To date, these are the school infections that the NRPH has released publically:

SchoolSchool BoardCasesWho?Location
Grimsby Secondary SchoolDSBN1Not reportedGrimsby
Glynn A. Green DSBN11 child at YMCA daycarePelham
Park Public SchoolDSBN1Not reportedGrimsby
St Elizabeth Catholic Elementary SchoolNiagara Catholic11 staffWainfleet
St. Martin Catholic Elementary SchoolNiagara Catholic103 student, 3 staff, 4 not reportedSmithville
Sources: DSBN and Niagara Catholic and Ontario.ca

Outside of schools, here is what we know about COVID-19 infections in West Niagara towns and townships.

Current active COVID-19 case rates in West Niagara (Dec. 15)

Grimsby: 5.8 per 10.000 residents
Lincoln: 5.3 per 10.000 residents
West Lincoln: 8.9 per 10.000 residents
Pelham: 7.8 per 10.000 residents
Wainfleet: 0 per 10.000 residents

This is published on the cryptic data page on the Niagara Region website.

We can extrapolate that to the following case estimates based on reverse-engineering the total numbers reported daily.

Current active COVID-19 cases in West Niagara (Dec. 15)

Current active COVID-19 cases in West Niagara on Dec. 15:
Grimsby – population: 28,500 – 16 cases.
Lincoln – population: 24,500 people- 13 cases.
Pelham – population: 17,500 people – 9 cases.
Wainfleet – population: 6,500 people – 0 cases.
West Lincoln – population: 14,500 people – 8 cases.

We reported that data here today.

If you have a tip on a COVID-19 infection in your workplace or school that you are willing to share and you think is in the public’s interest to know about, contact us at [email protected]