As Spotlight PA reported last week, “The Wolf administration is refusing to disclose details of wasted coronavirus vaccine doses, including how many have been discarded by each provider, citing a decades-old law that it has frequently used to shield the public from scrutinizing its pandemic response.” The Pennsylvania Department of Health denied a public records request by Spotlight PA “seeking documentation of vaccine doses that providers did not administer because of expiration, damage, or other factors. ... Providers are required to self-report to state health officials whenever a dose of vaccine is ‘compromised,’ and explain why.” Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.
We know we’re starting to sound like a broken record regarding the Wolf administration’s lack of transparency, but that’s primarily because Gov. Tom Wolf has so frequently broken his promise to ensure that the people’s business is conducted transparently.
The issue of wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses strikes us as important, as many Pennsylvanians wait to get inoculated against the infectious disease that has disrupted and ended far too many lives — and as President Joe Biden announced Monday that he expects 90% of American adults to be eligible for vaccination by April 19 and to have a vaccination site within 5 miles of their homes.
The contents of those vaccine vials are precious. We should be permitted to know why some were wasted.
And for the Wolf administration to hide behind the 1955 Disease Prevention and Control Law — again — is truly disappointing.
Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Rachel Levine, then the state health secretary, cited the 1955 law as a reason for withholding the number of COVID-19 tests the state was conducting and the number of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes. “Although the Department of Health later reversed course and made that information public, officials are still using the law to withhold other data and documents,” Spotlight PA reported in August. “That includes communication between state officials and those tasked with assisting nursing and personal care homes.”
Last May, for instance, Nicole C. Brambila, then a reporter with PublicSource in Pittsburgh and now with LNP | LancasterOnline, filed a records request with the Health Department seeking county-level numbers of pneumonia and influenza deaths since 2015. The department denied her request, citing the Disease Prevention and Control Law.
Last September, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reported that state officials cited the 1955 state law to explain why they hadn’t released school district COVID-19 case data. They said it was partially out of concern that, in districts with a small number of cases, it might be easy to identify those who are infected.
The 1955 law — originally written to protect the privacy of individuals with syphilis — gave the health department broad authority to keep reports of contagious diseases confidential, Geli reported.
We found the argument that disclosing COVID-19 case data for districts might compromise individual privacy to be incredibly weak.
“A key purpose of the 1955 law was to prevent the spread of communicable diseases,” we wrote. “And it explicitly stated that the release of information toward achieving that purpose is an exception to the nondisclosure language. It is reasonable, urgent in fact, to come to the conclusion that the act demands greater disclosure, not less.”
We are more convinced than ever that this is true. So, too, is Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (of which LNP | LancasterOnline, The Caucus and Spotlight PA are members).
Melewsky told Spotlight PA that it’s “really important to note” that the Disease Prevention and Control Law “grants the Department of Health considerable discretion to release anything when it serves the public interest.” State health officials, however, are “choosing not to do that. And they have never justified that in the context of a Right-to-Know denial.”
We’re guessing that’s because they cannot justify it.
So why do they keep citing it?
Is it because it’s a reflex by now, and they cannot be bothered to devise another reason? Are they worried about what any disclosures might reveal? Do they have an underlying disdain for the public’s right to know? In the absence of clarity from state officials, Pennsylvanians may feel free to assume any and all of those things.
We have supported Wolf’s science-based approach to battling this pandemic. We appreciate that he’s made tough decisions that other elected officials wouldn’t. But we continue to believe that this continuing lack of transparency only serves to undermine public trust in his administration at a time when such trust is essential.
A spokesperson for the state Health Department told Spotlight PA that just 1,589 of the more than 2.3 million doses administered as of Feb. 26 — or just 0.06% — were reported by providers as wasted, “mostly due to vials broken in handling, syringe issues, such as bent or broken needles, or clients refusing after the vaccine dose was drawn.”
But the information released by the state did not reveal “which providers were responsible for the wasted doses or if any were responsible for a disproportionate share.” And, most frustratingly of all, the “spokesperson declined to elaborate on why more details could not be made public.”
Spotlight PA pointed to a ProPublica report in January that found inconsistent reporting requirements to document wasted doses across the states, and no enforcement of the federal reporting mandate.
Just 0.06% wastage actually seems impressive, given the potential for things to go wrong in any procedure that involves shipping and humans. Transparency in this instance actually could shed light on something the state has done relatively well.
But 1,589 wasted doses equal 1,589 individuals not able to be vaccinated or delayed in getting vaccinated. If there’s a discernible pattern in the lost doses, we should be allowed to know. Especially because millions more doses are headed Pennsylvania’s way in the weeks to come, as the federal government ramps up supply to meet its vaccination goals, and we should be able to feel confident that those doses will get into the arms of the Pennsylvanians eagerly awaiting them.
There’s also a larger principle at stake here: It’s imperative that data be accessible in any health crisis, particularly one that has utterly upended our lives.
Wolf’s Department of Health should have realized this by now — and acted on it.