Governor-Wolf-and-Secretary-Levine.jpg

Pictured here are Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.

THE ISSUE

As Brad Bumsted and Mike Wereschagin of The Caucus reported over the weekend, the Pennsylvania Department of Health will begin providing specific details about the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths at each nursing home in the commonwealth “after resisting such a move for months.” State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the agency expects to release the data this week. “The move coincides with a new federal disclosure rule” that took effect Monday, they reported. The Caucus is an LNP Media Group watchdog publication.

It took prodding from journalists and elected officials to get the state Department of Health to release data about COVID-19 cases by location that’s more specific than by county.

And to release even partial data about the racial and ethnic makeup of those who have tested positive for COVID-19, information that is necessary so resources can be directed at the communities most in need of them.

Efforts to obtain the names of long-term care institutions with coronavirus cases and deaths were rejected by the Health Department. And its spokesman refused to answer questions about its response to specific nursing homes, including Lancaster County facilities.

This explanation to LNP | LancasterOnline’s Heather Stauffer, when she was seeking nursing home data, was typical: “We are constantly reviewing and considering what information to release publicly, while also protecting the privacy and confidentiality of Pennsylvanians,” department spokesman Nate Wardle said in early May.

We understand the need to protect the privacy and confidentiality of individual patients. But we fail to understand how releasing data about individual nursing homes, racial data and more precise geographical data would infringe on the privacy of patients.

Because it wouldn’t.

And the state Department of Health now implicitly is acknowledging this reality by agreeing to release information it should have been releasing all along.

We understand that the department is swamped by the demands of dealing with a public health emergency that’s unprecedented in its scope and its challenges. COVID-19 is a new disease, caused by a new coronavirus, and we’ve all had to take a crash course on its peculiarities and effects.

But it’s precisely because it’s a new and still-mysterious disease that the Department of Health should have erred on the side of transparency all along.

A lack of information only engenders fear and distrust — and the state Department of Health cannot afford to promote either when the commonwealth is beset by a public health crisis in which misinformation abounds.

In Lancaster County, we’ve benefited from having a coroner — Dr. Stephen Diamantoni — who’s been transparent from the early stages of this crisis.

Diamantoni has been releasing data on individual nursing homes for weeks. He’s been ahead of the state in calculating the number of COVID-19 deaths here. He’s answered countless questions from LNP | LancasterOnline journalists and this editorial board, which has benefited from his openness and appreciates his transparency.

But there shouldn’t be a need to circumvent a state agency.

We find it interesting that the state Department of Health’s decision to release individual nursing home data neatly coincides with the implementation of a federal rule requiring such disclosure.

As Bumsted and Wereschagin reported, the federal disclosure rule was pushed by Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who said nursing home residents, their families, public health authorities and communities need access to information about what’s going on inside nursing homes that are battling COVID-19.

Casey is right.

According to Bumsted’s and Wereschagin’s reporting, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services directed nursing homes to report coronavirus cases and fatalities by Monday. “Nursing homes must notify patients and family members of coronavirus cases and deaths,” they noted. “The numbers of cases and deaths at each facility will be published once a week, on a federal website, after the data are analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The site will be live by the end of May.”

Wardle, the Health Department spokesman, told The Caucus that the agency had been evaluating release of the information over the past few weeks but had been weighing residents’ privacy. If there were only a few cases or deaths at a facility, he said, people might figure out who was involved through social media.

Withholding information because it might lead to speculation on social media is a very weak excuse. More often it’s the dearth of information — and the suspicion that a government agency is hiding something — that leads to wild speculation.

On Monday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Department of Health released a new report that, "for the first time, includes race and some ethnicity information for almost all the state’s COVID-19-related deaths," LNP | LancasterOnline's Hurubie Meko reports.

"The publication," Meko noted, "marked another reversal by the department, which has made several policy changes throughout the pandemic." 

“Another Reversal” would be an apt title for a book about the Department of Health’s handling of COVID-19 data during this crisis.

The Wolf administration always has claimed to value transparency. The report it released Monday was a significant step forward and owes to a decision to use COVID-19-related death information solely from one reporting system rather than trying to reconcile information between different tracking systems.

We wish that decision had been made sooner. We wish the department had been transparent from the beginning of this crisis.

A related note to Gov. Tom Wolf: We directed questions your way last week. We’d still love to get the answers.