The South Canterbury District Health Board has Covid-19 modeling data which it has used to plan its response to the pandemic, but unlike other DHBs, it has not yet released this information to the community.

In an interview with SCDHB Managing Director Jason Power and Covid-19 Resilience Project Manager Anna Wheeler in early February, both referenced the work DHB had done using modeling to create and quantify the best and worst-case scenarios and other variations.

The Covid-19 Resilience Project had been underway since October 2021 and was in its final stages of implementation at the time, according to the two.

The Herald Timaru asked the health board to share its modeling with South Cantabrians on February 10 and SCDHB communications manager Karen Berry replied that she would find out if the information could be released.

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On February 14, this request was reiterated and the Herald I was told there was no response from Power. Despite being told the request would be followed up, no response was provided.

February 18, The Herald Timaru asked the DHB again for the same information, this time citing the Official Information Act in the hope that it would get a response.

DHB has been requested for its modeling with respect to suspected spread scenarios, number of cases, impact and other related outcomes of a Covid-19 outbreak in the region.

The DHB is required to provide a response within 20 working days of the date a request for information is made, although the legislation and the Ombudsman are clear the countdown begins when the inquiry initial is made, whether there is a formal mention of the Official Information Act or not.

On this basis, a response was expected on March 10. However, the DHB has indicated that it considers the deadline to be March 18.

On March 17, the DHB emailed that it needed more time to provide a response and said it would not be able to do so until March 25.

According to the DHB, the extension was necessary because the request “will take longer to process”.

The DHB must now respond by the end of the week, accepting or denying the request for information, as well as setting out the reasons for any further denials or extensions (file photo)

Valentina Bellomo / Stuff

The DHB must now respond by the end of the week, accepting or denying the request for information, as well as setting out the reasons for any further denials or extensions (file photo)

Modeling data from a number of other health boards across the country, including Southern, West Coast, MidCentral Health, Waikato, Capital and Coast and Hutt Valley, Hawke’s Bay DHBs, was reported.

Michael Plank is a professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury, as well as a senior researcher at Te Pūnaha Matatini, New Zealand’s Center of Excellence for Research in Complex Systems and Data Analytics.

Plank said he supports communities with access to good quality information and modeling results.

“I think it’s useful for people to know that. People prefer to be informed, or at least have the opportunity to be informed,” he said.

But he said it requires that the context and limitations of the modeling are also clearly communicated and explained.

He said there is a difference between modeling and making predictions.

The impact of modeling can change both individual behavior and official policy, Plank said.

“It’s something that’s been happening since the start of the pandemic…when modeling groups around the world released scenarios of what might happen.

“People thought it looked pretty bad, and there were drastic changes in behavior and government lockdowns etc.

“The worst-case scenario never happened, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened.”

Plank said the modeling is used in many different ways, helping to inform policymaking as well as at the operational level, helping DHBs plan for potential patient numbers.

The R number — the measure of the ability of the coronavirus or any disease to spread — plays a key role, Plank said.

The University of Canterbury's Covid-19 mathematical modeling professor, Professor Michael Plank, says modeling information should be publicly available, along with context.  (File photo)

Provided

The University of Canterbury’s Covid-19 mathematical modeling professor, Professor Michael Plank, says modeling information should be publicly available, along with context. (File photo)

“We have estimates of the R number, and from that we determine how many people are going to get infected over time.

“We also need to know the size of the population, because the more people there are infected, the more and more difficult it is for the virus to find new people to infect.”

He stated that the current outbreak generally follows the lines of modeling published by Te Pūnaha Matatini both before Omicron’s arrival and since.

“It’s probably more on the lower end [of cases], this is what we expected. At the time, we said we were quite optimistic that it was at the lower end of the range.

“One thing we have seen is that so far there have been fewer cases in the elderly than we originally thought, which is helping to reduce our hospital numbers and our deaths.

He said the role of mathematicians in public health is not new.

“Infectious disease modeling is a big part of applied mathematics…it’s something that mathematicians have been thinking about and researching for decades.”

Plank said it’s possible that telling the public about modeling results could make some more jaded about the risk, but said the perception of risk is different for everyone, and others might consider the same modeling as disturbing and modifying their behavior.

The Herald Timaru had previously urged the DHB to release information on the part of South Canterbury where new positive cases had been identified. This was initially denied, but the day after the Herald published an article outlining why the DHB did not – it began publishing daily case numbers broken down by district.