As provincial COVID-19 cases climb, UBC campus-specific data remains limited

With in-person classes in full swing and hundreds of provincial COVID-19 cases being reported every day, students remain in the dark when it comes to UBC campus-specific data.

The COVID-19 situation on campus is continuously changing, as indicated by new rapid-testing policies and recent exposures that are being reported by one student’s COVID-19 tracking database.

Despite these developments, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, maintained his previous statement that UBC is unable to release COVID-19 data about COVID-19 cases on campus due to privacy concerns.

In a new email to The Ubyssey, Ramsey said that UBC must be “mindful of privacy considerations” while supporting Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) efforts to contain the pandemic.

“It’s important to know that UBC cannot communicate cases broadly unless we are directed to do so by VCH to support their contact tracing efforts,” said Ramsey.

“Public notifications are only made when it is not possible to reach all close contacts and it becomes necessary to inform the public about a potential exposure,” said VCH in a written statement.

“We respect patient confidentiality at all times and rely on it for our public health response, so people feel safe co-operating with our teams and don’t face stigma from the community.”

However, AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Eshana Bhangu believes UBC has the infrastructure to protect students’ privacy and still provide the campus community with COVID-19 information. She pointed out that UBC has no problem protecting large amounts of private student data, such as addresses and credit card information.

“I think for an institution like UBC, [with] our size and our budget, I fully expect that it's feasible to maintain students' privacy, while at the same time informing the community members of important information in a responsible way,” Bhangu said.

She emphasized the importance of an institutional database in reducing students’ anxiety and limiting discriminatory presumptions as students theorize about who might be sick.

“If we have an institutional database, I think we'll definitely see reduced anxiety or panic amongst students as they're trying to guess if their classmates have COVID or not.”

Currently, the BC Centre for Disease Control uploads biweekly neighbourhood data of people living in the UBC neighbourhood, though it does not include commuters. There has also been some information reported on UBC vaccination rates. Still, no official UBC source exists for cases on campus.

For Laura Marr, a fourth-year French major, not having this data is “pretty disconcerting” and has made her more anxious during the shift back to in-person classes.

Marr said not everybody is taking the necessary precautions, and knowing so little about the extent of COVID-19 exposures is worrying. She highlighted the need for “open dialogue” from the university, something she believes would help students stay safe without invading their privacy.

Marr’s thoughts echo those of Wayne Fan, a fourth-year biology student who believes the university should keep students informed, especially as in-person classes have been reimplemented as part of BC’s Restart Plan.

“We’re a part of the restart plan, but if we don’t know what’s going on, if we don’t know the status quo, it’s really hard to unify us,” said Fan. “It puts a lot of students in fear and we feel neglected.”

While Fan went on to acknowledge that having more information could also be scary, he thought it was important for the university to provide “an indicator of how we’re doing.”

Dr. Ken Denike, a medical geographer and assistant professor emeritus in the UBC department of geography, had similar thoughts. Denike is confident information could be released without invasion of privacy.

“We were always working between providing information that informs people and not providing information that identifies people,” said Denike about his work in epidemiology, adding that the campus could “readily” do the same.

According to Denike, it would be helpful to release spatial maps that provide a general range of where cases are occurring. He also referenced his past research in which he studied the approximate sites of salmonella cases in Vancouver and did so without disclosing actual locations or risking individual identification.

“I find it hard to believe that they can’t do something similar for the campus,” said Denike.

Denike’s suggestion aligns with what Fan would like to see from UBC. When asked about what information would be helpful to him, Fan expressed a desire for data on case numbers and “spatial distribution” of the cases.

Ramsey acknowledged community members may be concerned about the possibility of COVID-19 cases on campus, stating UBC “understands their wish for transparency and rapid communication.”

“In my opinion, the more information the better, especially at a university,” said Marr. “And it's just very odd to me that they wouldn't want to give us more tools to keep ourselves safe.”