Saskatoon’s mayor delivered a statement in the daily newspaper on a Thursday, announcing a dozen new pandemic cases in the city to bring the total to 32.
Let’s break that sentence down: The mayor was Alexander M. Young, the newspaper was The Saskatoon Daily Star, the Thursday was Oct. 17, 1918 and the pandemic was the Spanish Flu.
A century later, we’re getting no specific information about the number of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan’s largest city.
During a public health crisis, our public officials are less transparent today than 102 years ago, when Saskatoon was closing in on 26,000 residents.
In the current pandemic that has prompted draconian measures to prevent the spread of infections, Saskatoon is lumped into a region containing about 380,000 people.
We do know 185 residents of the Saskatoon region have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and that active cases peaked at 100 on April 7.
However, the Saskatoon region, as is the case with the five other arbitrary areas the Ministry of Health is using to report cases, covers many communities outside the Bridge City. The region includes about 100,000 people who live outside city limits and in three other cities: Humboldt, Martensville and Warman.
Most Canadians are getting far more specific information about the location of COVID-19 cases than Saskatchewan residents. Alberta, Ontario and Quebec have made concerted efforts to be as transparent as possible. Some Canadians can find case information by postal code.
You don’t have to look far to find a more transparent approach to providing information during a public health crisis — just glance to the past.
A decade ago, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, we were told there were 15 deaths linked to the H1N1 flu, but also the age range of the people who died, their gender and whether they had underlying health conditions.
Currently, during a much more dire pandemic, gender and underlying health conditions have been omitted from the information shared with the public about the 13 people with COVID-19 who have died.
We’ve been given two basic reasons for the lack of information.
The first is protecting the privacy of the people diagnosed, which fails any serious analysis, since other provinces with similar privacy legislation are releasing far more information. It also fails any common sense test.
The other argument offered for using six vast regions is that more specifics could lead to complacency in places with low case counts.
That complacency seems to have already settled in, as shown by large gatherings, like one in late May in Saskatoon that resulted in COVID-19 cases.
Plus, if you want conformity of behaviour across the province, why use regions at all? Why share any information about cases?
The current reporting philosophy is so lacking that it requires residents to place a huge amount of faith in medical and political leaders.
Saskatchewan’s not just an outlier in Canada, either. If you really want to appreciate the difference between the Saskatchewan approach and other jurisdictions, check out the North Dakota Health website.
Residents of the state that lies southeast of Saskatchewan get detailed case information for each of its 53 counties. Some American states report cases by zip code.
New Zealand, widely seen as a pandemic success story, also offers transparent information on case locations.
Still, the Saskatchewan strategy has been questioned internally — or so we’re left to assume.
The province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, announced on June 2 that a new approach to reporting was imminent.
The new model would have replaced the six regions, based loosely on former health regions, with 13 to 15 smaller zones and was intended to make people feel “comfortable,” Shahab explained. Only active case information would be reported.
Now, it appears that strategy has been abandoned, although the reversal has never been announced, much less explained.
Many see case transparency as key to reopening, but Saskatchewan’s apparently sticking with secrecy.
The province’s privacy commissioner, Ronald Kruzeniski, has urged as much information be released as possible to instil faith in the pandemic response.
You only have to travel back in time to find that thinking applied in this province.