The provincial government says it won’t reveal the vaccine status of individuals who die from COVID-19 because it could identify them.
It’s a bogus argument. And it’s robbing the province of an important tool that could be used to fight vaccine hesitancy.
The vast majority of Manitobans who die from COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated, according to provincial data. But when public-health officials report individual deaths, they don’t reveal the person’s vaccination status.
Government has an obligation to protect the identities of those who fall ill from COVID-19, as they do with all private health information. They are legally required to do so under the province’s Personal Health Information Act.
However, it’s a stretch to argue that releasing the vaccine status of those who die from COVID-19 could identify them. The province publishes the age range, gender and health district of individual COVID-19 deaths, but not vaccine status.
Public-health officials say the more information they release about patients, the greater the chance a person’s identity could be revealed.
"That information could identify an individual, so it would not be appropriate to include," was the only explanation given to the Free Press in a statement from a government spokesperson.
The provincial government is missing a golden opportunity to highlight how COVID-19 vaccines save lives. If they released the immunization status of individuals who die from the disease, it would send a powerful message of how effective vaccines are at preventing severe illness.
The province does publish aggregate data on the number of fully vaccinated people who have died from COVID-19. The statistics are buried in Manitoba Health’s weekly respiratory surveillance reports. According to the most recent report released this week, there have been 31 deaths among fully immunized Manitobans since the province began administering vaccines nearly a year ago. That’s a fraction of Manitoba's 1,274 COVID-19 deaths. Since the first group of Manitobans were fully immunized in early February, 92 per cent of 413 COVID-19 deaths were among those who did not have both doses of the vaccine.
Not surprisingly, the majority of COVID-19 deaths are from the Southern Health region, where vaccine uptake is the lowest in the province.
Since Oct. 1, 34 of 63 COVID-19 deaths (54 per cent) have been from Southern Health, a region that represents roughly 15 per cent of the province’s population.
Those are revealing numbers. But they don’t have the same impact that regular reporting of individual deaths (and their vaccination status) would.
The province releases details about new infections, hospitalizations and deaths on weekdays (greater detail is provided in twice-weekly news bulletins). The reports include a breakdown of vaccine status for new cases and hospitalizations, but not for deaths.
Provincial officials may be reluctant to do so because of the sensitivity around deaths and the fear that releasing vaccine status could be seen as casting blame. By concealing that information, the province is holding back critical information that could help convince the unvaccinated to get the shot.
People are still dying in large numbers from COVID–19 and many more are becoming severely ill.
People are still dying in large numbers from COVID-19 and many more are becoming severely ill. Some have developed long-term (in some cases lifelong) ailments. Rising case numbers are clogging up hospitals, burning out medical staff and forcing administrators to cancel tens of thousands of surgeries and other elective procedures to make room for COVID-19 patients. Failure to contain the most recent wave of the disease could result in more economic shutdowns, resulting in additional bankruptcies and unemployment. The stakes are high.
The evidence is overwhelming that vaccines substantially reduce severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths. So why wouldn’t the province use every tool at its disposal to highlight the latter, including regular reporting of how many people who die from COVID-19 were not vaccinated?
It seems like a giant missed opportunity.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.