Privacy concerns among reasons public health won’t provide local case counts

COVID-19 cases reported at high school, retirement home, Legion in Mount Forest

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Concerns about privacy and “creating a false sense of security” are among the reasons offered by Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) for not offering municipality-specific data on local COVID-19 cases.

At its Nov. 17 meeting, Minto council passed a resolution to request that WDGPH share the community locations of positive COVID-19 tests in Wellington County.

Minto’s request followed inquiries from local residents and business leaders.

“Given how small some of the communities are in our region, there is a risk that someone’s privacy may be exposed as we get more granular with data,” stated WDGPH communications manager Chuck Ferguson in a Nov. 20 email.

“The current reporting structure is an attempt to strike a balance between privacy and information.”

He added, “There is also the risk of a false sense of security with the reporting of case location.

“Just because a person lives in a certain area and is isolating and recovering there, doesn’t mean that area is the source of infection. They may have acquired COVID-19 when in another community working or visiting.

“Location of cases does not necessarily inform individuals where hot spots are.”

Because many people who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic, Ferguson stated, “we all have to assume that it is circulating within our community and that each of us might be a risk to contract or spread the virus when we interact with others.”

Ferguson said WDGPH Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer is in constant communication with municipal leaders and “will continue to speak with them about cases, outbreaks and precautions to promote among their constituents.”

Outbreaks in Mount Forest

While not providing specific numbers, Ferguson confirmed there have been outbreaks of the virus in the Mount Forest area, some of which are linked to an event at the local Legion branch.

“There have been outbreaks and some cases are linked to a Legion event,” Ferguson told the Community News.

The Mount Forest Royal Canadian Legion Branch 134 has announced it will be closed to the public until Dec. 1.

A post on the branch’s Facebook page states the decision was made by the executive “due to the rising COVID-19 numbers in the community.”

Also in the community:

  • the local Tim Horton’s branch has closed until Nov. 27 after an employee tested positive (public health has stated the store “took all necessary precautions” and made its own decision to close);
  • a handful of downtown businesses have closed, citing “rising COVID-19 numbers in the community”;
  • Wellington Heights Secondary School has taken precautions after reporting on Nov. 17 that a student there tested positive; and
  • Birmingham Retirement Community in Mount Forest went into outbreak mode on Nov. 19, with one staff member testing positive.

“Since close contact is such an effective transmission mechanism, you might have an entire household test positive within a short time period and this can cause localized rates to spike,” Ferguson pointed out.

“That is why Dr. Mercer is strongly recommending people don’t go to into other people’s homes and don’t allow anyone who does not already live with you to enter your home.

“If they have to, everyone in the house should be masked, practice social distancing as much as possible and wash hands regularly.”

Ferguson noted public health is not recommending any special precautions for residents of Mount Forest

“The same precautions apply across Wellington County, Dufferin County and the City of Guelph,” he said.

“Because people can be infectious while showing no symptoms, people should assume they can catch the virus from anyone.

“That is why it is so important for everyone to wear masks, maintain a distance of six feet and wash their hands frequently.”

He added, “The virus is spread via people. So we have to control how close we, and those who live in our homes, get to other people. This is not a permanent problem.

“But these are the basic measures we should all follow right now to slow transmission of the virus.”