Public health officials in Nova Scotia knew they were dealing with an outbreak of E. coli five days before they informed the public about it in early January, documents obtained by The Canadian Press show.
The first indication that staff were aware of the E. coli 0157 outbreak appears in two emails sent by the province's chief medical officer to staff with the Health Department and district health authorities on Dec. 31, 2012.
In one of the emails, Dr. Robert Strang says the Health Department was in the process of gathering more information about the outbreak and officials would meet on Jan. 2 to assess it.
Notes from that day's meeting, which were released under access-to-information legislation, show that Health Department officials knew there were dealing with seven confirmed cases of E. coli 0157 affecting people ranging in age from 18 to 83.
Those notes also show that six of those people reported eating at fast food restaurants and they showed symptoms of the bacterial infection from Dec. 23-26, 2012. Officials were also aware of an E. coli outbreak of the same strain in New Brunswick but decided to delay notifying the public, the notes show.
"There have been no media calls yet. Until we know what the link is, we will provide standardized messaging," the notes said.
“If N.B. is sending messaging out, we should be consistent. Delay 24 hours."
Public informed Jan. 4
It wasn't until Jan. 4 that the department issued a news release confirming it was investigating the cases, two of which required hospital admission. No one died.
In an interview, Strang said he doesn't believe Health Department officials tried to withhold information from the public. Instead, he said they needed to gather more information from the people who contracted the infection.
"The judgment was that we needed to wait at least 24 hours... so we have something concrete that we can say to the public," Strang said.
"What do you say publicly without doing unnecessary harm or creating unnecessary anxiety? So we'd respond if questions came to us, but we didn't feel we were ready yet to go proactively because we didn't have enough of the detail."