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EDITORIAL: Greater availability and access to public health data vital in future

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the country have rushed to get accurate public health data. The need to relay information on active cases, outbreaks, recoveries and now vaccination rates has been vital in providing options for decision-making not just by the province, but also for municipalities and their residents.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the country have rushed to get accurate public health data.

The need to relay information on active cases, outbreaks, recoveries and now vaccination rates has been vital in providing options for decision-making not just by the province, but also for municipalities and their residents.

However, the availability of public health data in Alberta has been lacking at the best of times and occasionally, almost non-existent.

While the government has access to well educated and experienced medical professionals in the public health field, the way it has been relayed to the public has been confusing and ineffective.

The importance of getting people vaccinated is vital, and not just offering prizes and lottery winnings to do so, the availability of data is equally key in helping provide a complete and informed picture.

A transparent and open availability of reliable data will only serve to better inform the public.

A 2019 paper by the Public Health Agency of Canada stressed the benefits of making data accessible when it comes to public health. It reminded readers as a member of the G8, Canada adopted the Open Data Charter in 2013 and the growing reliance in using available information.

The paper, Reaping the benefits of Open Data in public health, emphasized how beneficial a system of available data can be, much the same way access to weather and environmental information assists with predicting and stopping floods, fires and other weather events.

But when it comes to public health data in Alberta, the province needs to take steps forward and they only have to look to a neighbour to the east.

In Ontario, a strong public health system has survived recent funding cuts as 34 health units - Alberta’s equivalent to health zones - and leading epidemiologists and biostatisticians from universities work to provide information to the public.

The medical officers of health for each health unit - regularly referred to the top doctors in specific regions - also have the authority to overrule the province if in the best health interests of the community. The decisions they make are informed by the most reliable and accessible data.

The health units update daily the cases by age group, gender, cases hospitalized, epidemic curves, the exposure source and the variants of concern. Outbreaks at schools, long-term care facilities, child care centres and employers are also regularly provided all while respecting individual privacy.

Websites such as #HowsMyFlattening and IC/ES carefully present the community risk, number of tests, postal code hotspots per health unit, ICU information and the basic reproduction number also known as the R nought.

At a higher level, Public Health Ontario regularly publishes up-to-date research papers on COVID-19 trends, impacts and modelling and projections.

The information can be accessed by anyone in the public, disseminated by media and public officials at all levels of government. Regardless of the government in power, the system largely hums along separate from the politics of the day.

When the pandemic ends and life eventually returns to a measure of normalcy, a priority in how public health information is relayed to the public and made accessible needs to be examined.

At no other time has there been a greater means of providing or gaining access to data.

It is invaluable in delivering information and helping people understand the critical nature of a situation. It can demonstrate the impact, provide goals and positively influence the decisions of public policy.

The province needs to step up in providing public health data to help residents, communities and municipalities in determining the necessary priorities in the years to come.