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Ohio Department of Health delays records release despite court order

Despite a court order, the ODH still had not released all records detailing the number of beds, ventilators and other medical equipment available for each Ohio hospital as of late Wednesday night.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism. Please join their free mailing list as this helps them provide more public service reporting.]

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Despite a court order issued by the Ohio Court of Claims, the Ohio Department of Health still has not released all records detailing the number of beds, ventilators, and other medical equipment available for each Ohio hospital as of late last week.

Eye on Ohio received incomplete records via a Zip file at 6:03 p.m Wednesday. It is unclear why records are incomplete. 

The records contain most bed capacity information from local hospitals from late March, but records abruptly end on Oct. 30. On that date, 33 hospitals reported 0 beds available for adults either in the “Med/Surg” or “Critical Care” categories at some point during the day. 

The data also contains a record of the number of ventilators available, but most other medical equipment numbers are missing. ODH said they had no data on staffing levels.

Eye on Ohio originally requested the data on March 19 and filed suit on April 29. Numerous delays by the ODH included late responses on four separate occasions. After briefings concluded, Special Master Jeff Clark ruled in Eye on Ohio’s favor on Oct. 20. The ODH did not object to the ruling within the time allowed by law. The Court of Claims adopted the Special Master’s recommendation Nov. 10. 

Eye on Ohio made multiple requests for access or the records on Nov. 12 and 13. Department of Health attorney Socrates Tuch advised that the agency was preparing a data extract and would provide the information “on a rolling basis.” But he gave no date or time when the materials would be provided.

When the materials still weren’t provided after additional calls, Eye on Ohio visited the Department of Health offices, only to be told by Tuch to stop going there.

During Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Tuesday press conference, DeWine said that the information would be released on a daily basis.

“There is no reason why we can’t release that that I am aware of,” DeWine said. “And I’m not sure exactly sure how we are going to release it. But we should be able to get that out. This is all data that we are getting from the hospitals around the state.”

Ohio’s public records law and the court’s order call for state agencies to provide the public records, as opposed to edited summaries that might pick and choose which information is provided. For the records on the SurgeNet database, this could be done in multiple ways. The department could grant a login and password with limited access so Eye on Ohio could download the public records directly.

The department could provide an Excel-compatible document with each day’s data for all hospitals via a ZIP file or online dropbox link. Or, the agency could provide screenshots with the requested records for each day.  

Tuch told Eye on Ohio that the agency anticipated providing the requested data by Friday. When pressed further for a prompt response without delay, Tuch declined to say he was working on the records. Contradicting his earlier email, Tuch also indicated that reporters would have to file a new request for the records every day. 

At last Tuesday’s press conference, DeWine stated that coronavirus cases have been fluctuating between 7,000 and 8,000 cases for about a week now. Six weeks ago, Ohio was only at 1,000 cases.

At the beginning of his press conference Tuesday, DeWine said that on Oct. 13, there were 1,000 people in Ohio hospitals diagnosed with COVID-19. As of Wednesday, there were 22,846 hospitalizations in the state.

Lt. Gov. John Husted said more measures were needed to stem the flow of the virus before it overwhelmed the health system. 

“When we had these long discussions over the past week, the hospital officials said look that’s the goal. Everything that contributes to people coming together is the cause. And everything that we can do to prevent people from coming together is the solution,” he said. “It will be difficult but we will all get through it.”

On Tuesday, as a measure aimed at stemming the person-to-person passing of the virus, DeWine announced a limited curfew from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. daily starting today for the next 21 days.