Fraser Health held a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib in Surrey on Friday, May 7, 2021. Roughly 400 people pre-registered to get their vaccine the week before. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

Fraser Health held a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib in Surrey on Friday, May 7, 2021. Roughly 400 people pre-registered to get their vaccine the week before. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

COLUMN: Localized COVID-19 data could have helped Surrey communities hit hardest

Looking at school exposures in the second wave, it was clear Newton was seeing a significant amount of cases

When I first read through the leaked B.C. Centre for Disease Control report on May 7, I was shocked but not surprised.

On May 6, the Vancouver Sun published “COVID-19: Leaked reports show B.C. health authorities withholding data from the public.” The report showed much more hyperlocal data than the public and journalists had yet to be given. Maps detailed case rates per capita, vaccinations and positivity rates.

READ ALSO: Surrey communities recording more COVID-19 cases also seeing lower vaccination rates, May 8, 2021

We’re normally only privy to weekly case counts by local health area, and that data is usually released nearly a week after the fact.

Furthermore, Surrey was normally divided into two sub-regions, Surrey and South Surrey/White Rock. But the leaked report showed the city split into nine distinct communites: Whalley, North Surrey, West Newton, East Newton, Guildford, Fleetwood, Cloverdale, Panorama and South Surrey.

But those communities weren’t new to me. Back in December, I was working on a two-part feature about why COVID-19 seemed to be hitting Fraser Health, specifically Surrey, particularly hard.

PART ONE: ‘The great amplifier’: COVID exposes disparities in Surrey, survey suggests, Dec. 18, 2020

PART TWO: Advocates call for more multilingual messaging for education, awareness about COVID-19, Dec. 30, 2020

I interviewed Paul Hillsdon, a Surrey resident and urban planner/geographer, after he highlighted some of the results released from the BCCDC’s COVID-19 Survey on Population, Experience, Action and Knowledge (SPEAK).

“I opened it up, and to my surprise, there was actually a finer-grained level of detail with data at closer to a neighbourhood level than we’ve seen before,” Hillsdon told me. “To me, that was this opportunity where I started looking through it and I saw this very clear discrepancy around COVID, around the health impacts, around the social and economic impacts and those disparities were just very obvious in Newton, as compared to other parts of the city.”

In a thread of tweets, Hillsdon noted the survey results give “some clues” as to the spike in cases in Surrey over the past few weeks.

“In summary, Newton residents felt greater financial stress, worked more essential jobs, were more concerned for their health, had less access to a doctor, and had a lower sense of community belonging,” Hillsdon said on Twitter.

However, at the time, the most detailed localized data available were monthly and weekly cases.

Between Jan. 1 and July 31, there were 521 COVID-19 cases recorded in Surrey (3,641 in all of B.C.). By the end of November, Surrey hit 10,479 cases (33,238 in B.C.), either nearly doubling or doubling case counts every month in between.

That was about 32 per cent of all of B.C.’s cases despite having about 11 per cent of the province’s total population.

READ ALSO: COVID-19 ‘disproportionately’ affecting Fraser Health: Henry, Oct. 29, 2020

Meantime, the Surrey school district started posting COVID-19 exposures on Twitter within the first week of the 2020/22 school year.

I decided to create an interactive table, listing the schools, the exposure dates, when it was tweeted out and how many exposures there had been at each school.

What I noticed was the high schools with the most exposures were in Newton.

At the time of publishing the first part in my COVID series, there had been at least 77 notices between four secondary schools in Newton.

MAP: School exposures

While that wasn’t definitive data, it showed that Newton schools seemed to be harder hit than others in the city. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if it’s happening at the school level, there must be spread into the community.

Sure enough, just a few days after the BCCDC report was leaked, a Fraser Health report detailing school cases from Jan. 1 to March 7, 2021 was leaked on social media and then officially posted to its site.

READ ALSO: Fraser Health still unsure if 333 cases of COVID among students, teachers were acquired in school, May 12, 2021

In it, it stated that one-third of school acquired cases spread into the community. Of the 2,049 cases found among school staff, teachers and students during that period, Fraser Health considers 267 – 13 per cent – to be school-acquired. Of those, 88 lead to community or household spread.

However, Fraser Health data shows there were an additional 333 cases with “suspect acquisition in school” that were not included in the 267 confirmed school acquired cases. If those cases were added to school-based infections, that would push the percentage teachers and students who caught COVID-19 at school from 13 per cent to 29 per cent, more than doubling it.

I can understand why, at the start of the pandemic, health officials chose to withhold localized data due to potential racism and stigmatization, but when you hit more than 10,000 cases at the height of the second wave – and now more 33,000 cases at the height of the third wave – it becomes a community issue.

READ ALSO: Surrey records highest monthly increase in COVID-19 cases, May 6, 2021

Like me, Kulpreet Singh, the founder of South Asian Mental Health Alliance, said it was “disappointing but not surprising” when he first heard of the data leak.

“It definitely could have helped to slow the spread,” he noted.

“Data is never something that we should hesitate from if we want to have an educated and informed society.”

Lauren Collins is a staff writer with the Now-Leader. Email her at