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BC government apologizes for sending letters that may have revealed recipients' vaccination status

The BC government has apologized for sending out letters which may have revealed recipients’ vaccination status.

The letters, written by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, were recently sent to areas in the province where vaccination rates were low.

On the outside of the envelopes, above the name and address of the recipient, the following was printed: “A COVID-19 vaccine has been reserved for you.”

At least one recipient – a Kelowna resident – lodged an official complaint about the letters, claiming they publicly revealed information about the addressee’s health (i.e., vaccination status).

The Investigations Unit at the Privacy, Compliance and Training Branch of the Ministry of Citizens’ Services has now acknowledged that the letters made it possible for a person’s vaccination status to be “inferred” due to the phrase on the front of the envelope.

<who> Photo credit: Submitted </who> An example of envelopes in which the letters were sent (name and address removed).

Scott Carroll, manager of the Investigations Unit, wrote in an email to the Kelowna resident: “Although the intention was not to identify the recipient’s vaccination status, the investigation has determined that the decision to include the statement did create a risk that the recipient’s personal information could be inferred inappropriately.

“Although the letters do not overtly identify [the recipient’s] vaccine status, the IU has found that an inference could potentially be made as to an individual’s vaccine status based on receipt of this letter.”

Carroll added that “the Province did not have appropriate authority to disclose this information under [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act] or the [Public Health Act].”

“Prevention measures” have now been implemented to better protect residents' personal information, Carroll explained.

He added: “Ministries must take responsible steps to ensure that communications sent through the mail sufficiently protect the privacy interests of individuals, especially when handling information as sensitive as vaccination status.

<who> Photo credit: Submitted </who> An excerpt from the letter itself.

“We sincerely apologize [...] for this error.”

Carroll’s email, however, also stressed to the complainant that the letters were sent to both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.

It added that the investigation “found that the collection and use of your personal information for the mailout was authorized by the Public Health Act.”

The email cited Section 54 (1)(k) of the act, which permits a health authority, during an emergency, to use and disclose information that could otherwise not be used or disclosed.

“As you know, British Columbia is currently navigating an ongoing pandemic and vaccination efforts are underway to try and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Carroll wrote.

The letter campaign was part of a strategy to boost vaccination rates so the province could be freed from the “emergency that we have all been facing," he added.

The Ministry of Health told NowMedia the apology email was sent to everyone who complained about the letters.

"BC is focused on vaccinating as many eligible people as possible, because the best way to protect ourselves, our families and our communities against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated," the ministry added.

"The Province worked with Interior Health and Northern Health to send the letters to postal codes in communities with lower vaccination rates and with a large number of residents still to be vaccinated. The intent was to provide people with information on how to get a vaccination, at a time and place convenient to them.

"Though the letters were sent in sealed envelopes directly to personal mailboxes, we recognize the privacy concerns raised with regards to the writing on the envelopes and apologize that personal information may have been inferred inappropriately as a result."

The ministry said that, "moving forward," it will ensure that "prevention measures" are in place to better protect the personal information of residents.

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