Criticism of healthcare leaders doesn’t come easily at a time when the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic is upon them, but we see current policies of withholding information from the public as a danger to the public they serve.
The visit last Saturday to Meridian by Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s health officer, foreshadowed a rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in Lauderdale County. The state had reported three cases in the county as of Thursday, March 25 and that had increased to 50 in the state’s news release of Friday, April 3. The county number likely will rise significantly by the day.
Additionally, the state reported as of Friday there were three outbreaks at Lauderdale County long-term care facilities.
The Meridian Star tried to confirm the specific facilities where the COVID-19 outbreaks are underway, but the state declined to name them, and Dobbs said at a news conference the state would not name those facilities or others with outbreaks.
“We want to protect the anonymity of the people who are ill and we also want to protect and not stigmatize the nursing home facility,” Dobbs said.
We understand HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules and legal fears, but naming a facility and background information does not name individuals. There should also be no stigma just because a facility houses a patient with a virus that’s spreading like wildfire across the country. These aren’t the days when even cancer was considered a stigma.
Other state health agencies, as close as Louisiana, have provided specific information.
The Star called nearly a dozen nursing homes, retirement communities, assisted living and rehabilitation centers to try to identify the sites. Some could not be reached by phone, others would not comment and representatives from six facilities said they had no confirmed cases.
We do this not for voyeuristic reasons, but rather to help inform the public that by chance may have had incidental contact through those facilities or one of their patients, staff, visitors or their family members.
Although the residents, staff and their immediate family members may have been notified of the outbreaks, what about delivery drivers? What about groups that may have visited to cheer residents over the last month? What about more distant relatives or friends who might have had contact with staff, patients or those visiting family members?
The Star has encountered similar resistance from local hospitals when we tried to find out general information such as age, gender, county/state of residence, underlying health conditions and where the virus may have been contracted. We’re not taking names.
Other information such as the number of tests administered in Lauderdale County, number of beds available to potential COVID-19 patients and number ventilators available here have been difficult to come by.
The Associated Press reported Thursday the state was withholding information on the number of ventilators, test kits and medical supplies available in Mississippi.
The AP reported it submitted a public records request to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency on March 25, seeking information about coronavirus testing kits or testing supplies and all medical supplies, including personal protection equipment, ordered by the state, including names of vendors and prices paid.
MEMA said Thursday that the timeline does not apply because the state emergency operations center has been activated, according to AP. The agency said all requests for public records “will be handled after the agency has returned to normal operation status.”
It has become apparent that months of preparation for COVID-19 were squandered. Our false sense of security has evaporated.
The public has been asked to give up its individual rights for the protection in exchange for a greater good.
Our leaders gained the right to ask those sacrifices through trust, which should be earned. In order to maintain that trust, the public requires openness and information that allows them to guard against a threat to their health and possibiliy life.
Of all times, these are the days openness is most needed.