The need for clear, quick and reliable information has never been greater. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us, either directly through an infection or through the economic fallout that coronavirus has caused. We need information to make decisions about our livelihoods, our finances and our health.
In the absence of good information, rumors and innuendo flourish. People will speculate. They’ll make assumptions. They’ll draw conclusion that are wrong. We’ve seen that time and again.
Our public health agencies have been under enormous strain to keep the public informed while also managing their myriad other essential responsibilities. While many of us can work from home, they’ve been out in the community, working to keep Wyoming safe. But those responsibilities don’t diminish the need for clear, forthright information.
Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed instances when the Casper-Natrona County Health Department has given incomplete information to the public, or failed to provide it at all, leaving people to speculate and guess about what is happening in their community.
In the past few weeks, we’ve learned of three instances of mass testing after a positive coronavirus case in Natrona County. In one, the health department never shared this information with the public. In two other instances, they did not initially name the daycare and assisted living centers in question, effectively subjecting every such facility to unnecessary speculation.
Our concerns over the release of information date back farther. In mid-April, we learned that the roommate of an employee at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute, which was home to a significant coronavirus outbreak, attended multiple house parties before testing positive themselves.
This roommate was also a health care worker. Where exactly? We don’t know. The health department claimed revealing that would somehow violate HIPPA, a federal law concerning the privacy of an individual’s health care information. In other words, revealing the place of work of an unnamed person at what the mayor described as an “institution” would somehow allow the general public to divine the identity of that individual. A specious claim, to be sure.
Especially when you consider how the Star-Tribune learned that workers at Wyoming Medical Center had tested positive for COVID-19. That information first surfaced in an unrelated public records request, which included an email that stated an ER doc at the Casper hospital has tested positive. That records request was presumably reviewed by the county attorney, who apparently didn’t have the same concern that releasing workplace information on an unidentified person constituted a HIPPA violation.
In response to reporter questions, the hospital later confirmed that it had tested roughly 200 workers after five employees who worked directly with patients tested positive for coronavirus. But the county health department never shared this information. They never included it in their regular press releases announcing cases, even when asked by an editor whether providers were infected. Instead the agency, a regulator of public health, left it to the entity it oversees to decide whether to release information to the public.
A similar deference was apparent most recently when testing confirmed cases involving a Life Care Center resident and a child at the Learning Junction, both in Casper. The initial announcements did not identify either location. When a local health department official was directly asked the name of the nursing home, she declined to identify the facility, even after a journalist noted that state health officials had established a precedent for identifying assisted-living centers exposed to COVID-19 on day one.
Ultimately, the state released the assisted living center’s name, knowing it was in the public interest to do so. And why is that important? Because until the facility was identified, any person with a parent or grandparent at a Casper nursing home was wondering whether their loved one might have been exposed to a disease that has proven especially deadly to the elderly. Similarly, the local health department waited six days to identify the childcare center, leading to unnecessary speculation.
In all of these instances, the department showed a deference to the entity it regulates when it came to sharing critical information. But the deference should be to the public, which has a right to know if a facility in their community has been subject to mass testing.
And it’s important to remember: other agencies are releasing this information without being asked. The Wyoming Department of Health, from the get-go, identified Showboat Retirement Center and Worland Health Care Rehabilitation Centers in their press releases. Similarly, it didn’t take a public records request for people in Rawlins and Cody to learn that workers at their local hospitals tested positive.
None of this is to take away from the essential work that our local health department has been doing during this crisis. They’ve worked long hours, weekends and holidays to stay on top of the biggest health crisis in our lifetimes, something we’ve noted in past editorials. But officials there must think differently when it comes to the release of information. When it comes to sharing key health news, the first consideration should be to the public they serve, not the businesses they regulate.
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