Local officials have been insistent in recent days that they are prohibited from releasing additional information about where the sharp increase in COVID cases are coming from. We don’t think they’re right.
The objection is rooted in HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which governments and companies like to treat as a magical document that hides inconvenient facts from view. While designed as a genuine protection against the unauthorized release of personal data it is, in the most common approach, used as a sort of invisibility cloak for all sorts of information.
The calls for more information have become louder as suspicions have grown, and some businesses have point-blank said, that there is an outbreak of the virus at JBS in Ottumwa. Outbreaks at similar plants in Iowa created some of the highest numbers of infections anywhere in the state.
Other data to support suspicions of an outbreak exists. Testing in Wapello County was largely flat last week. It has since ramped up significantly, rising by 17 on May 1, 24 on Saturday, 75 on Sunday and 89 on Monday. Given that testing is still largely limited to those who clearly show symptoms or who have been in contact with people who contracted the virus, this increase strongly suggests officials know there’s an issue and have a specific site in mind.
There’s a legitimate issue here. Few of us would want our medical histories open to all and sundry, even if the most embarrassing item in it was an ingrown toenail. At the same time, the public absolutely should know if the nearly ten-fold increase in cases is being driven by a single location.
Perhaps the best rebuttal to the local argument is, ironically, the state’s own handling of data. The Iowa government’s website for tracking the pandemic, coronavirus.iowa.gov, includes a separate breakout of cases at long-term care facilities. It notes the number of cases at 24 nursing homes and similar facilities that have experienced outbreaks.
It’s very, very hard to argue that the state’s identification of 113 cases among residents or staff at Heritage Specialty Care in Linn County is less likely to identify individuals than far fewer cases linked to a plant with 2,200 employees. It’s not a plausible stance.
And it is definitively less likely to identify people than the Iowa Department of Corrections’ approach. The Iowa Medical and Classification Center has approximately 939 offenders and 494 staff according to the IDOC website, for a total of 1,433 people.
The same website shows 19 inmates and six staff members at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, the data the state releases goes further. It shows 261 inmates have been tested.
We’re not calling for the release of individual names or data that would be likely to identify people who, frankly, have far more to worry about at this moment. Those who test positive for this virus need to be more concerned about getting better than being made a pariah.
But when businesses say they are closing because of an outbreak at the Ottumwa plant, when we get calls from employees saying they are scared that there is an outbreak, the justifications for not releasing information must come under further scrutiny. And, when examined in light of the very different approach being used by the state, those justifications fall short.
Local officials need to be more forthcoming.