May 19, 2020 9:52:02 AM
Access to quality data has been essential in every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. The relationship between the public and those who provide that data is one built on mutual trust: We trust our experts to give us accurate, actionable information, and they trust us to follow their recommendations.
Unfortunately, in Mississippi there has been a breach of trust in the relationship that endangers public health and seriously undermines the credibility of our state's health experts.
The elderly residing in long-term care facilities (LTCs) are particularly vulnerable to the virus. According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, as of Monday, nearly half the COVID-19 deaths state-wide were linked to LTCs.
In light of this, newspapers have repeatedly asked MSDH to provide the names of the LTCs where deaths have occurred. The Pine Belt News in Hattiesburg, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and The Meridian Star has all asked for this information to no avail. The Pine Belt News filed suit to demand the MSDH release the names of these facilities. The Clarion-Ledger has filed a complaint with the state's Ethics Commission.
The Mississippi Press Association, which represents member newspapers throughout the state, has written a letter to MSDH supporting these efforts. The Dispatch also supports them.
MSDH has refused to release the names, saying they will not release the information until the crisis has passed. One of the reasons? They're too busy, they say.
The state's leading health expert, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said MSDH has a list of those facilities, so we cannot imagine that MSDH does not have the manpower and time required to scan and email a single-page document.
This is not a matter of protecting personal information under HIPPA law. None of the requests seek the names of any LTC residents. It is instead, a request for information crucial to the health of many including those who have family members or staff in LTCs, families who are considering placement of a family member in an LTC, vendors and others who may come into regular contact with those at the LTCs.
MSDH says it doesn't want to release the names of the facilities for fear they will be stigmatized. To the degree that is true, there is an even greater interest at stake here: The right of people to have facts that inform their decision.
MSDH simply doesn't trust us enough to provide that information.
If a restaurant were found to have an outbreak of salmonella poisoning there would be no hesitation in providing the name of the restaurant.
The stakes are infinitely higher here. With a public health crisis that has already cost the lives of 528 Mississippians -- almost half of them in LTCs whose names haven't been revealed to the public - it is inconceivable that MSDH would deliberately, cynically, conceal this information.
Such obstinance not only damages the department's credibility, it jeopardizes lives.
If we cannot trust our state health experts in this time of crisis to provide such relevant information, where are we supposed to turn?
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