When I filed a freedom of information request in May with the Ontario Ministry of Health to find out how many people had died from COVID-19 as a result of hospital outbreaks, I expected an answer. Deaths related to hospital outbreaks across Canada are a serious problem, and it’s shameful that Canadians don’t know more about them. When the Ministry replied later that month to say that they didn’t have this data, I was stunned. How could this be?

Hospitals have been ground zero throughout the pandemic, and have received a lot of attention as a result. In most provinces, there are regular reports about how many people are in hospital. In Ontario, we know that there are 323 people in the ICU as a result of a COVID-19 infection. There are regular reports of how many people are using a ventilator who are still testing positive for COVID-19 (175) and no longer testing positive (27) as well. (These numbers, and all of the following data, is accurate as of June 21)

Yet unlike long-term care deaths, which were regularly reported, we know relatively little about hospital outbreak-related ones, especially in Ontario, though information about the number of outbreaks and cases is reported. The Ministry of Health may not have this information, but the data on death counts exists, though it isn’t public and it’s not clear how it can be obtained. 

As a result, I’ve had to rely on the public reporting that does exist to reconstruct what’s been disclosed about COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals. This includes public health data from the few regions who list this information (such as Toronto, Ottawa and Halton) as well as media reports. 

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve linked 368 COVID-19 deaths in Ontario to public hospital outbreaks. I’ve also found that at least 1,256 people in Canada died in a hospital from COVID-19 that they caught there, comprising 7.1 per cent of total deaths in residential care. 

The number is certainly much higher, though, as indicated by other limited information that has been shared online. On May 16, for example, epidemiology professor David Fisman tweeted that approximately 500 people in Ontario died from hospital-acquired COVID-19. Why hasn’t this number been reported publicly by the government and regularly updated?

Ontario isn’t the only province that has failed to make this information publicly accessible. No province save Manitoba has consistently published these numbers. What we know is mostly thanks to investigative journalism.

The first news of a massive hospital outbreak in Quebec came in November, when media reported — based on the local health authority’s internal documents they’d obtained — that 76 people died from an outbreak at St. Jerome Hospital, north of Montreal. 

The number was stunning, but there were more. Relying primarily on access to information requests, journalists in Quebec found dozens of deadly hospital outbreaks, including one at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont in Montreal, where 150 people died. 

Thanks to this and other reporting, I have linked 730 COVID-19 deaths in Quebec to hospital outbreaks, the most of any province by far. 

What we know about hospital outbreaks in Alberta and British Columbia comes from journalists and some local public health units. I’ve linked 72 deaths to British Columbia hospital outbreaks, and 29 deaths to Alberta hospital outbreaks. Alberta’s number represents just 2 per cent of the province’s deaths from outbreaks in residential care.

Saskatchewan is where we know the least about hospital outbreaks leading to death, because the province has not regularly reported deaths related to any sort of residential care facilities. As such, I’ve only been able to link a single death to hospital outbreaks.

None of the governments in Atlantic Canada report this either, though with far lower case counts, the odds they’ve had many, if any, deaths related to hospital outbreaks is significantly less than the rest of Canada. 

Manitoba is the only province that has consistently noted if a death came from a hospital COVID-19 outbreak, and which hospital. Perhaps as a consequence of this reporting, Manitoba’s percentage of deaths from hospital outbreaks is the highest, at 8.8 per cent (52) of all 591 deaths that I have linked from outbreaks in residential care settings.

There’s no excuse for provinces not to gather and publicly release the data they’ve collected on COVID-19 deaths related to hospital outbreaks. This information is critical to help us understand how well COVID-19 is being controlled in hospitals, and to allow us to hold anyone responsible for these deaths.

Governments should have mandated that this information be collected and published, and the Public Health Agency of Canada should have released reports based on this information. 

But, just as is the case for workplace outbreaks and some kinds of residential care, the lack of data makes it easier to hide the impact. What other justification can there be to not release this kind of information? 

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