People wait in line at a Covid-19 testing center in Toronto, Canada on November 23, 2020 ( AFP / Geoff Robins)

Canadian doctor's remark misrepresented as evidence of inflated Covid-19 count

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Social media posts claim Canada's Alberta is inflating its Covid-19 case count, citing a remark by the province's chief medical officer about people who are ill but do not get tested being considered part of the outbreak. This is misleading; Alberta's government says Deena Hinshaw was discussing protocols for school outbreaks, and the doctor clarified that the official Covid-19 tally does not include cases not confirmed through testing.

"If you ever needed an outright admission of misrepresentation of COVID case counts, this is the video for you. Alberta's chief health officer openly admits during a televised update that those who haven't even been tested are being counted as COVID positive cases," says the text of a September 27, 2021 Instagram post.

The post includes a clip of Hinshaw saying: "If individuals choose to not get tested for Covid but are home with an illness, they are now counted in the list as being part of that outbreak."

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on September 30, 2021

Similar claims appeared on Facebook and Twitter.

Alberta controversially decided to remove most pandemic-related restrictions in late July, but announced a state of emergency in September and asked for federal help to deal with a surge of mostly unvaccinated Covid-19 patients ending up in hospitals. The return of restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the disease, coupled with a new proof-of-vaccination program, has sparked frustration in the province.

The remark by Hinshaw, which she made during a September 23 news conference, does not mean that anyone who becomes sick in Alberta is counted as a Covid-19 case.

"Dr Hinshaw was simply referring to outbreak management protocols in school settings, where all respiratory viruses are treated similarly by the current protocols in place, which helps reduce the chance of onward spread," said Tom McMillan, a spokesman for Alberta Health, describing the claim in the posts are "false."

Her comment "does not mean we automatically count anyone staying home as a Covid case," McMillan said. "All cases reported in the province are those that are confirmed Covid-19 cases or those who’ve been tested and are awaiting results."

Hinshaw's remark came in response to the question: "Can you explain why parents don't have the right to know if there are Covid cases in their child's school?"

She said: "Disclosure of individually identifying health information, as would happen if individual case notifications happened in schools, would be a violation of an individual's privacy and their rights under the Health Information Act."

There is a framework in which schools can receive assistance from Alberta Health Services "if they see that there are an increased number of children who are ill because of respiratory illness," Hinshaw said, before adding the remark featured in the social media posts.

Contrary to what they suggest, she made no mention of including untested patients in the province's official Covid-19 tally -- a point she emphasized at a September 28 news conference.

The remark from a few days earlier "referred to school outbreak management only. To manage outbreaks effectively in school settings, all respiratory viruses are treated similarly by the current protocols in place, which helps reduce the chance of onward spread of any virus," said Hinshaw.

"However, that does not mean that we automatically count anyone staying home as a Covid case. Our high overall case counts reflect only cases that have been confirmed through testing, or a very small number of probable cases which are usually when results are pending."

The province's official Twitter account also commented on the claim, calling it "false" and saying that "all reported positive COVID-19 cases are confirmed by lab test."

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 1,100 false or misleading claims related to Covid-19 here.