Emails show Dr. Bonnie Henry knew of concerns over COVID-19 data and school exposures while publicly downplaying them
This article is a joint investigation by Burnaby Beacon reporter Srushti Gangdev and Capital Daily reporter Brishti Basu.
Internal emails show BC public health leaders, including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, had concerns about the quality of COVID-19 transmission data collected in schools—and that those concerns persisted in private, months after officials had started making claims to the media and the public on a regular basis that the risk of transmission in schools was very low.
These records also show an internal awareness of a “daunting” spike in school exposures and concerns about the ability of contact tracers to keep up with them, while publicly, health officials downplayed the spread of the virus in schools.
The emails were obtained as part of Freedom of Information Act requests by Burnaby Beacon and Capital Daily.
Repeated assurances about risk in schools
On multiple occasions between September and December 2020, Henry told the media at COVID-related press conferences that the risk of transmission at schools was very low.
Instead, she said, school-aged children more likely picked up the virus at home or at social events where there weren’t strict COVID protocols in place. And exposures in schools, she claimed at the time, were a reflection of transmission within the larger public, not the other way around.
On Sept. 28—two weeks after students in British Columbia returned to schools for the 2020 school year—Henry said parents shouldn’t “needlessly” worry about COVID-19 exposures at school.
At that point, Henry said there had been no instances of transmission or outbreaks reported at BC schools.
“What we are not seeing is schools amplifying transmission [in the province],” Henry said on Oct. 5. She said public health would be “monitoring closely,” given that the first two-week incubation period since school started had passed.
In November, when Henry put in place new restrictions on social gatherings, indoor sports, party buses, and non-essential travel amid a huge spike in cases in the community, she maintained that schools were seeing little transmission.
And she made a similar pronouncement in early December, when the province put in place sweeping restrictions on almost all social gatherings and events. She did, however, acknowledge that schools had recently seen a rise in exposure events.
“Those exposures still continue to reflect transmission in our communities, but we are not having large numbers of transmission events in schools,” she said.
“Those are very small, very few. We’ve had few outbreaks in schools, but they’ve been limited in number.”
Concerns were mounting among teachers, members of the public, and independent experts, however, that COVID prevention measures in schools were far from adequate and that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to claim transmission was rare.
Emails obtained by the Beacon show that Henry, along with BCCDC and Ministry of Health staffers, planned to give a press conference on Dec. 23, 2020 to present updated modelling numbers and hopefully assuage concerns from British Columbian parents and teachers about safety standards in schools.
On the morning of that press conference, Henry emailed Dr. Reka Gustafson (then deputy provincial health officer for BC), Dr. Patricia Daly of Vancouver Coastal Health, and Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin of Fraser Health, asking them to provide any data that showed transmission was low.
“Could you please give me some of the stats from your school assessments for the media brief today. We need to be able to give some data that supports what we keep saying transmission in schools is low,” Henry wrote.
“Data from your report Patty would be helpful and anything that indicates percent of cases in students versus teachers.”
At the press conference a few hours later, Henry told reporters “the data shows us that we are not seeing schools being a place where transmission spreads widely. When the safety protocols that are in place in schools are followed, it is a very safe environment and transmission is very unlikely.”
A Ministry of Health spokesperson told the Beacon and Capital Daily that Henry’s comments about the relative safety of schools in 2020 were based on reports like this one from The National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools, which was regularly updated until November 2021.
The version of that report updated most recently before the Dec. 23 press conference did suggest that transmission between children in schools was lower when infection control measures were in place. It also found that child-to-child transmission was much more common in those settings than adult-to-child or vice versa.
The authors of the report, however, cautioned that the certainty of the evidence was low and that findings could change as more data became available.
BC’s ‘relatively poor’ data
The emails also reveal challenges in compiling the data, which had to come from each individual health authority.
Staff had been working in the days leading up to that press conference to provide data on school transmissions to Henry.
But an email sent by Eleni Galanis from the BCCDC noted that the province’s available data on in-school transmission was “relatively poor.”
Meanwhile, a Dec.18 email from the Ministry of Health’s Christie Docking to Gustafson noted that requests to health authorities for school transmission data “have been met with hesitancy. It’s unlikely that we’ll have the information we need for the 23rd.”
“We still need to determine what can be presented provincially, given the differences in data collection regionally,” Docking wrote. “Our previous data requests only resulted in partial data from Interior and summary data from Northern.”
Docking noted that Vancouver Coastal Health had already sent data to its regional stakeholders, and suggested that Henry present that at the Dec. 23 briefing.
The ministry acknowledged to the Beacon and Capital Daily this week that there had been challenges in compiling that information from the different health authorities and that identifying transmission was a difficult task. For one thing, the contact tracing form the health authorities were using only asked whether someone with COVID-19 had attended school.
“Reporting data on school attendance prior to diagnosis was not sufficient to infer transmission at school,” the spokesperson wote. “During this time, the Provincial Health Officer and her team [were] participating in daily discussions with regional health authority MHOs about what they were seeing in schools and what the investigations into cases and contacts was revealing about exposure events and risk of transmission with these exposures as well as understanding the outbreaks that did occur in schools.”
The ministry noted that some more specific analyses from Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health had been better at finding a cause or source of transmission, but said that had required a much deeper analysis of clinical records.
The Beacon and Capital Daily also asked the Ministry of Health why data described internally as “relatively poor” was presented to the public at the Dec. 23, 2020 press conference as evidence that in-school transmission was low.
In its response, the ministry attached links to three research papers that tracked COVID in BC schools and concluded that in-school transmission was rare. However, only one of the papers tracked COVID in schools before December 2020.
The other two tracked cases in schools between January and June 2021, and April to June 2021.
Victoria teachers noticed ‘daunting spike’
Right before spring break, in April 2021, teachers and parents in Victoria were starting to sound the alarm about a spike in COVID-19 cases in classrooms.
According to Carolyn Howe, then vice-president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA) and a kindergarten teacher at South Park Family School, the school district had five exposure notices in the first two weeks of March, before the start of Spring Break on March 15. Up to that point, from September 2020 to the end of February 2021, there had only been three exposure notices.
Spring break seemed to exacerbate the issue. By April 9, there had been a total of 18 school exposure notices in the region. Though contact tracers were working at the time, staff were not told who was infected and had to rely on anecdotal information to keep themselves safe.
Meanwhile, Henry publicly continued to downplay the level of transmission happening in classrooms. She repeated these assertions multiple times at a press conference on April 15. “Schools are relatively low transmission environments,” she said at one point. “There is little transmission within the school itself.”
“Student and staff cases follow the trends in the community but … when they’re in the structured school environment, the rates of transmission are much much less,” Henry repeated in the press conference.
An email obtained by Capital Daily shows Henry was aware of the level of risk in classrooms, at least in the Island Health region, because it was communicated to her by Dr. Richard Stanwick, the region’s chief medical health officer, on April 3.
“Dee [presumably medical health officer Dee Hoyano] asked that I draw your attention [to] the significant spike in school exposures,” Stanwick wrote directly to Henry. “The number is proving to be daunting and there is a general concern that neither the contact tracers nor the schools are going to keep up with the current pace. Perhaps, in your messaging, you could again emphasize the importance of the parents keeping children home if they are sick and getting them tested.”
Henry did introduce new guidance at the April 15 press conference: keep children home from school if anyone in the household is sick. However this guidance was not a part of her original presentation, and was only added after a reporter asked about cases in schools.
In their responses to questions about Stanwick’s email, the health ministry and Island Health both stuck to the same script: that the email was about school exposures caused by transmission outside of school, during spring break.
“This did not reflect children getting sick in schools, but rather children returning to school after exposures in the community during the break,” the health ministry wrote in its statement.
However, Island Health also noted that it “does not have specific data on cases contracted within the school setting, as the source for COVID-19 cases cannot be definitively confirmed when there is a high level of community transmission.”
At her April 15 press conference, Henry noted that public health officials would be closely monitoring in-school transmission. But when asked this week how many children contracted the virus in school from April 2021 onwards, the health ministry shared data from much later in the year—three reports from October, November, and December.
The archived data section for K-12 schools on the BCCDC website is empty, and therefore also does not give us an answer about how many children got sick after April and before summer break.
School exposures and transmissions have been the source of a certain amount of discontent in BC’s data collection and release practices among some BC groups, including the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the GVTA.
In May 2021, a leaked report from Fraser Health showed that public health had in fact been collecting data that showed the “directionality” of transmission in schools between January and March 2021—meaning that in cases where someone acquired COVID in a school, public health in many cases figured out who had given it to them.
Just hours before the report was leaked, Henry had told reporters at a press conference that the province did not collect data that showed the “directionality” of transmission in schools.
After the leak, the Ministry of Health said that when Henry told reporters BC doesn’t collect the information many people are looking for, which is “who transmitted to who,” she meant that information is not collected on a provincial level by the BCCDC or ministry. That’s consistent with the recently obtained emails, which revealed “challenges” in data discrepancies between health authorities.
Then-BCTF president Teri Mooring said her organization had been asking for that information for months and had been told it didn’t exist.
“It’s very frustrating. We’ve been told a number of times, because we’ve been asking consistently at the Ministry steering committee, we’ve been told ‘we don’t collect the data you’re looking for’; we’ve been told it’s messy data; it’s difficult to produce; technology is a problem; a lot of excuses,” Mooring told Burnaby Beacon last year.
“Then, we see information like this is produced. It can be produced.”
She said teachers and the public were hugely concerned about “the lack of an honest approach” in BC’s pandemic response communications.
“We deserve and should see that information in an open society. So why this government has been so opaque, and so lacking in transparency and the sharing of information, it’s really disconcerting.”
The leaked report showed that there were 2,049 confirmed COVID cases “associated” with Fraser Health schools between Jan. 1 and March 7. Thirteen per cent—or 238 of them—were the result of confirmed in-school transmission. Another 333 cases “likely” to have been acquired in schools were not included in that number, nor was an outbreak with 54 cases where there was a “unique context of transmission.”
A little over half of the cases involved students infecting other students.
In Victoria, the GVTA issued a press release on April 9 entitled “Lack of transparency in COVID leading to student absences, lack of confidence in school safety,” indicating the level of discontent in the data being released at the time.
“We are hearing from our members that they are not necessarily informed when a case is in their class, they have a student who is a close contact of a Covid case, or when siblings are affected,” GVTA president Winona Waldron wrote at the time. “Absences have dramatically increased as families try to make decisions about their risks based on scant information.”
Indeed, Capital Daily spoke to families at the time who had made the decision to pull their kids from school as a result of the uncertainty.
Waldron and the GVTA called for the province to publicly share data about cases in classrooms, and let people know whether it was a student or staff member who was ill, but those breakdowns were never made available, even to staff themselves.
According to Island Health, those who were affected directly were notified, and classrooms and school communities were informed of potential exposures “when deemed necessary by Public Health.”
Thinking back to April 2021, Carolyn Howe remembers feeling “let down and left in the dark by public health.”
“It wasn’t clear to us that there was a ‘daunting’ spike,” Howe said. “Teachers suspected that was the case. We saw illness in our classrooms; teachers were getting ill themselves.”
Hearing about Stanwick’s email and Henry’s awareness of the issue did not surprise Howe, but caused a lot of anger.
“It further undermines my faith in the way that public health has handled COVID in schools,” Howe said. “There’s no reason why these secrets should be kept. People deserve to know the risks that are there, and when these secrets are kept, it undermines everyone’s faith in public health and in the Ministry of Health.”
At the moment, despite COVID-19 continuing to circulate, data about cases and hospitalizations are still hard to come by in BC. Both official and unofficial counts suggest that actual case numbers are about 100 times higher than what is being reported.
In Victoria, not only have teachers’ calls for safety measures, like adequate ventilation, been ignored, schools have now also scaled back on sanitization steps.
“Schools have had hours of custodial time cut,” Howe said. “Elementary schools are having their desks washed once a week now. We’re hearing from teachers all across the district that they’re concerned that there’s a degradation of health and safety standards.”
The union filed a grievance with the superintendent of SD61 on Sept. 8, and Howe says it is still waiting for a response. The grievance notice points to the updated Provincial Communicable Disease Guidelines K-12 School Settings, which requires frequently touched surfaces to be cleaned at least once a day.
Meanwhile, teachers across the district are continuing to report illnesses among their students at the same, or higher rates than April 2021.
“It’s pretty unfathomable that custodial time would be cut while clearly the pandemic is still raging,” Howe said.