For months we have worked hard to answer some of the COVID-19 questions you have posed to us.
These days, readers constantly ask for more details. Chief among them: “What are the case breakdowns by ZIP code?” Or its cousin: “How do I know if a certain area is more dangerous than another?”
This is not a new issue for us. On April 7, I wrote to Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac to complain that he and the medical director at Mahoning County Public Health, Dr. Jim Kravec, had dismissed media questions about ZIP codes and hotspots as "completely irrelevant."
I wrote: "That is more of a public awareness decision and, at best, judging by other health departments across the country, a subject open to medical debate. No one wants amateurs to make medical decisions. I feel the same way about the release of public data.
"If your opinion is that it is not relevant, I welcome you to it. I will defend your right to express it. I'll even publish it. But I find it difficult to support any public entity's efforts to suppress public data. It is my belief that efforts like this provided by your nearby counterparts at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health better [arm] people with facts.
“I rarely comprehend how more information makes people less safe,” I added, noting Mahoning County’s situation in early April, “it might even be argued that in the county that leads in per capita cases among the most stricken counties and in total deaths, the case for less information doesn't seem to be supported.”
Ryan and I talked on the phone to follow up and we had a nice discussion, but he left whether the county data would be released up to the state. We reached out to the Ohio Department of Health, and it said that decision was up to individual counties.
It’s an entirely insufficient response from both sides. Public records aren’t reliant on whims or county lines. Either it is a public record or it is not. That was the stalemate until last week when, during his state update, Gov. Mike DeWine put up charts showing ZIP code breakdowns of COVID-19 counties in southwest Ohio.
That not only made the state’s entire reasoning moot, it made it silly. Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Melanie Amato told our reporter Justin Dennis that the governor showed those areas because they had COVID-19 spikes, and since there were no current spikes in Mahoning or Trumbull county cases, the information was not available right now.
Oh, I see. So when Mahoning County spiked ahead of the other 87 counties in cases per capita and total deaths, the information was “not relevant” and we couldn’t have access. Now that we’re only in fourth place in the state’s death toll, it’s “not available” and we can’t have access.
While I appreciate government officials undoing their own case, that logic proved to be the last straw. On Friday, we sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the three county health departments and the state seeking ZIP code breakdowns. Officials will have to cite a specific legal premise for denying us access to the data beyond the specious reasoning we’ve been subjected to thus far.
The letter, by Dennis, is direct: "It is Mahoning Matters’ position that if region- or locality-specific data are available to be released during a publicly broadcast presentation, then data for other regions and localities in the state of Ohio should immediately be made available for media organizations to deliver to the communities they serve."
This time, we fully intend to respond to any denial we receive on behalf of our Valley audience.
Look, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be difficult for all, especially for medical officials at the county and state levels. We know they have more daunting tasks than to deal with media requests. And we have complete respect for the local and state health officials, despite our broad differences on this key issue. Like most news media during this crisis, we have tried to be good partners and help spread information that health officials deemed vital to the community.
But we have not only the right but the obligation to collect and disseminate data beyond merely what the government wants us to collect and disseminate.
Despite the many interruptions to our daily lives, the state has not yet suspended Ohio Sunshine Laws. Both the state and Tecak have made vague references to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 as some sort of concern. Hit that link and turn to pages 87 and 88, and you’ll see a reference to HIPAA.
“The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that HIPAA did not supersede state disclosure requirements, even if requested records contained protected health information,” it reads. “However, the Public Records Act requires disclosure of records unless the disclosure or release is prohibited by federal law. While the Court found the interaction of the federal and state law somewhat circular, the Court resolved it in favor of disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
So the easy thing to do would be for county and state health officials to quit pretending this data are their information to release as they please in a patchwork of randomness across the state.
It is the public’s information. And while government officials are entitled to their opinion of how relevant or helpful the information is, they are not entitled to keep it from the public any longer.