As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on in British Columbia, so do requests for additional public health information from the province.

British Columbia’s health leaders have been criticized for withholding information on the spread of COVID-19, with the official line being that public information on cases would stigmatize people transmitting the coronavirus or communities affected by outbreaks.

This has led to the rise of unofficial case trackers on platforms like Twitter, which say they are helping to tackle the provincial government’s lack of transparency.

In particular, they point to the lack of official exposure notices in schools, a gap they are trying to fill on social media.

The student behind a Twitter COVID exposure tracker for the University of British Columbia says his account wouldn’t exist if province and university officials had been more open with public health information .

“In an ideal world, [publicly posting COVID exposures] is something that the university and the provincial health authorities would do on their own,” the student told CBC News.

“They’re much more qualified to do that. They have much better access to data, transmission information, contact tracing capability.”

CBC News has agreed to keep the student’s identity confidential to protect his academic career.

The UBC COVID Tracker started in September 2021, back to school. Since then, the project has followed dozens of exhibits at University.

Despite the concerns that COVID positive students passed exams at the end of December, and many universities start the January term online, British Columbia health officials continue to insist that in-person instruction is safe.

Provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry said layers of protection in educational settings prevent significant transmission.

However, with exhibits not made public for confidentiality reasons, no quantitative data is available to support his assertion.

For the student behind the tracking account, UBC’s lack of information – something they note is unlike many universities in North America, which have dedicated COVID-19 reporting tools – is linked to broader trends regarding transparency in the province.

“It seems, obviously, that there are issues with this provincial government regarding transparency,” the student said. “Whether it’s COVID-related, whether it’s like the greater FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] publish which popped up a couple of months ago…obviously it carries over to campus.”

Lack of exposure data hampers scientists

The UBC COVID tracker relies on self-reporting from students and staff who have received internal exposure notices.

It works the same as a configured tracker for K-12 schools, where parents school internal exhibits email to the account and they are then published publicly.

Jens von Bergmann, data analyst at Mountain Math and member of an independent COVID-19 modeling group, said information about public exposures helps parents assess the risks to their families.

“I think in BC the public really needed information that the province didn’t provide,” he said. “These bands jumped in to fill that void.”

Public pressure fueled in part by the popularity of the K-12 tracker prompted the province to begin publicly display school exhibits. But amid the fifth wave of the pandemic, which has caused a record number of daily new COVID-19 cases, exposure advisories have again been dropped.

Von Bergmann said the province should start proactively reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, especially given the current prevalence of the coronavirus in the community and how the Twitter tracker can only capture a fraction of all exposures.

“We don’t protect people from the flu in the same way,” he said. “If there’s a measles outbreak at school, we report it…there’s already a lot of information we give out, and somehow we don’t do the same with covid.”

He says the data collected by school exposure tracking has been invaluable in producing analyzes around the pandemic in British Columbia – which is becoming increasingly difficult as the province restricts access to tests.

“It’s good to have an independent voice or multiple independent voices to get some sort of broad understanding,” he said. “It’s not happening because we don’t have the data.”

Von Bergmann says the province should also start prioritizing providing standardized services wastewater data, start reporting positive rapid tests and clarify private tests.