The state Department of Health continues to fight efforts by LNP | LancasterOnline to make public COVID-19 death totals by ZIP code, information that could aid pandemic response efforts in counties lacking health departments.
Reporter Nicole Brambila filed a Right-to-Know request Sept. 1 asking that the department provide aggregated data on COVID-19 infections, deaths and vaccinations by ZIP code within Lancaster County. In making this data available to the public, local officials would have more timely information to prepare for shifts in a constantly evolving global pandemic that has killed more than 1,300 Lancastrians.
The department sent Brambila a link to its public website, which has ZIP code-level data on infections and vaccinations but does not have similar data on deaths. LNP | LancasterOnline in November appealed the denial to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which is the state arbiter of public information disputes. The Office of Open Records sided with the newspaper on Nov. 23.
Now, the Department of Health is challenging that ruling in Commonwealth Court on the grounds of a “constitutional right to privacy” for individuals who the records could potentially identify – the same argument that open records officials dismissed.
The aggregated data Brambila requested is defined in court documents as a “tabulation of data which relate to broad classes groups or categories that it is not possible to distinguish the properties of individuals within those classes groups or categories.”
Terry Mutchler, a Philadelphia attorney who served as the state’s first Office of Open Records executive director, said it has been well established in the Right-to-Know Law that aggregated data should be publicly available.
The appeal “is a significant waste of taxpayer money,” said Mutchler, who has represented LNP | LancasterOnline in previous open-records cases. She added that even if the law would fully support the department, the COVID-19 omicron variant is emerging internationally. “It seems to me that more information – not less – should be provided to the public,” she said.
If the Commonwealth Court rules in favor of Brambila and LNP | LancasterOnline, it could be at least six months before records would be released, Mutchler said.
“Our reporter and our news organization believes that disclosure of this information is in the public interest and will assist our community’s understanding of the scope of this pandemic,” Robert Krasne, chairman and CEO of Steinman Communications, which owns LNP Media Group, said in a statement.
“Given the strength of the opinion issued by the OOR, we plan to expend the resources needed to contest DOH’s petition for review of the OOR decision and to ultimately obtain these records.”
The case has implications beyond LNP | LancasterOnline’s interest in Lancaster County-specific data. Should the ruling stand that the data is a public record, counties without health departments could access it to target responses to the pandemic.