Concerns over public trust erosion after lack of details on COVID-19 birthday party outbreak

Healthy policy and communication experts say the lack of transparency around a birthday party outbreak cited by the premier twice this week could potentially lead to an erosion of public trust as the province battles through a third wave of COVID-19.

READ MORE: Alberta birthday party COVID-19 outbreak described by Premier Kenney has few details

On Monday, Premier Jason Kenney mentioned an outbreak at a birthday party in Athabasca County with a “100 per cent attack rate.” Then on Tuesday, he referenced the event again, saying how pervasive it has been in the community.

“There was apparently a 100 per cent infection rate at that party that then went to parents’ homes then that went to co-workers. That’s then affected the whole community,” Kenney said.

However, Alberta Health has no record of that outbreak. The premier’s office told Global News that the premier misspoke on the specific location of the party, but declined to answer detailed questions about where and when the event took place.

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When further pressed, the premier’s office could not provide details about how many people were infected, when the outbreak was declared or whether any attendees ended up in hospital or ICU.

“The premier was using an example of an event health officials briefed him on to illustrate a point of the serious nature of COVID-19 and ease of transmission,” spokesperson Jerrica Goodwin said in a statement to Global News. In response, Alberta Health directed inquiries to the premier’s office and said it could not comment.

Jessica Mudry, associate professor and associate chair of the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University, said there were logical holes in the story.

“Usually the reticence on the part of the speaker to give any specifics and any details around a supposed outbreak among a population that is very asymptomatic, and yet they speak about how every child got sick, makes me raise an eyebrow,” said Mudry, who is a science communicator by training with a specialty in health and medical communications.

“I think trust is being really eroded in situations like this where somebody who is in the position of power can’t exactly or specifically identify when and where something happened…Something like this is almost like a grasping at straws and not particularly good for galvanizing public trust or even collective action.”

Alberta, along with the rest of the country, is in a third wave of COVID-19. The province has banned indoor gatherings, saying they are a significant source of spread, and outdoor gatherings have a limit of 10 people. Last week, Alberta moved back to Step 1 of its reopening plan due to climbing case numbers and concerns over added stress to the healthcare system.

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READ MORE: Alberta shuts down indoor dining, group fitness amid surging 3rd wave COVID-19, variant cases

“I think we’re in a moment where we’re trying to get everybody in line,” Mudry said.

“What we end up having to do is cajole people into doing what we want them to do, using other arguments that are not necessarily scientific. What we’re resorting to now – and this ends up backfiring in a really bad way – is using things like scare tactics, using things like fearmongering in order to get people to behave, again, in a way public health wants them to behave.”

Tim Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, said the story is a powerful anecdote but it is important to be as accurate as possible.

“The numbers are terrifying. The numbers are really going up quickly. Right now, we very much need trustworthy information. The concern is, if there’s information flowing from the government that can’t be confirmed, we’re going to undermine public trust at the absolute worst time,” he said.

“If we can’t trust what’s coming out from the government on the pandemic, that’s a real problem.”

Misinformation around COVID-19 has been widespread, and health officials in Alberta have stressed the need for people to look to reliable sources.

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“If the government is seen as not being transparent or if the government is seen as providing information that can’t be confirmed, I do worry it plays into the hands of those that are suspicious, that don’t trust the government and are using that narrative to push misinformation,” Caulfield said.

Lorian Hardcastle, a health policy expert at the University of Calgary, said this particular incident is indicative of a broader problem.

“We’ve seen throughout the pandemic, where there have been a number of instances where the public felt like they weren’t being adequately informed or they felt like the details didn’t quite make sense,” she said, citing lack of transparency around modelling and vaccine priority groups.

Hardcastle said distrust in the government does not help with compliance, with the methods and restrictions that the province is using to try and contain the pandemic or with recommendations around vaccines.

“For those who believe COVID is real and believe we need to take precautions, [they] may not trust in the precautions the government has selected if they feel the government isn’t being honest with them,” she said.

“Those who deny COVID is real or deny it is serious may take the facts the government has been lax on enforcement or that, at times, government is sometimes apologetic of rule breakers and this lack of transparency and use that to fuel the denier fires.”

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Messaging during the pandemic has been ‘we’re all in this together,’ and that has becoming a rallying cry for Albertans to follow public health measures, particularly as vaccinations roll out across the province. However, Mudry said she feels like the messaging is becoming garbled.

“’This is what the epidemiologists told me but I’m going to somehow massage it to make it a little bit more palatable for the public audience,’” she said.

“Or ‘I don’t really feel confident enough to say we really don’t know right now’ and I think it’s the fear or admitting this is not something that has surety to it.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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