Cumberland Healthcare Center revealed Tuesday that it is the long-term care facility with confirmed cases of coronavirus, but more questions remain unaddressed. (See: “Nursing facility confirms virus cases,” April 15 Times-News, Page 1A.)
As of Wednesday, Allegany County had 20 coronavirus cases and Mineral and Hampshire counties in neighboring West Virginia had six each.
Where exactly are they? We’re not given specifics because of “privacy concerns,” and that’s not a satisfactory explanation.
This isn’t just a local situation. The Associated Press reports that federal health officials are coming under increasing pressure to start publicly tracking coronavirus infections and deaths.
AP says “Public health experts say the lack of transparency has been a major blindspot, and that publicizing outbreaks as they happen could not only alert nearby communities and anguished relatives but also help officials see where to focus testing and other safety measures.”
That line of reasoning applies just as much in our area as it does anywhere else.
Government can use “privacy concerns” to justify withholding information the public may need. It can be a shield government uses against outside efforts to require accountability and transparency in government. The only defense against excessive government is a citizenry that knows what its government is doing.
When “privacy concerns” are pitted against “transparency,” the public will lose. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, there are things the public needs to know but isn’t being told.
It is the job of the press to keep the public informed, but there are self-imposed limits. We do not, for example, report the names of fraud, rape or domestic abuse victims even if the police release them to us, unless the victims ask us to do so. Some of the #MeToo complainants who came forward wanted to be identified.
Neither would we report the names of those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or their home addresses, although we would tell you their communities of residence.
Nobody’s privacy would be violated if the public was provided localized data such as the number of cases in a community, or their age, gender or workplace. Such information can help people adapt to the situation.
“The public’s right to know” often extends beyond mere curiosity. And we have to ask how much of our own privacy we would be willing to sacrifice, even in situations like the coronavirus pandemic. It’s fine to be recognized for something that is good, but having attention focused upon us isn’t always pleasing or to our benefit — especially if it can lead to our being shunned or put in danger.
We have been told that the best way to keep coronavirus from spreading is remain at home and stay away from each other.
Some of us simply aren’t able to just stay at home. We must go out to essential jobs or to get food or medicine for ourselves and our families.
It would help to know the places we should avoid. Where are the coronavirus cases? Besides nursing homes, some businesses may be affected. We may work there or have family members and friends who do. What is our risk?
Some of the Mineral County, West Virginia, residents who have tested positive for coronavirus are employed in Allegany County. Nobody is telling the public where they work.
Health departments in both counties say they are attempting to identify anyone who has been in contact with those who have tested positive. It’s possible that they will miss someone they need to find. If those people knew more about the locale of the coronavirus patients, they might be able to come forward.
The Allegany County Health Department said previously that “two staff members and one resident” of a local nursing home had tested positive, but didn’t say which one. (See: “Should nursing homes with COVID-19 patients be named?” April 14 Times-News, Page 1A.)
West Virginia and more than a dozen other states are releasing the names of nursing homes where people are affected by coronavirus, but Maryland isn’t among them — citing “privacy concerns.”
The Allegany County Health Department refuses to release the names of coronavirus patients, or the identity of their employer, or nursing home or any other facility (such as a prison) where they reside because it says it’s not allowed to do so.
However, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) says privacy interests are not absolute in a public health crisis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said individual health information can be disclosed “to anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of … the public.”
The health department contacts the employer or facility and gives it the responsibility of informing other staff, residents and their families. Cumberland Healthcare Center chose to add the public to the list of those it notified.
Responsible sectors of the media respect both the right of the public to know and the people’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The trick is to balance them appropriately, and government doesn’t always do that.