Oregon Uses COVID-19 Data To Decide On Reopening But Refuses To Release Data

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The Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday refused to release key statistics used to help justify and monitor Oregon counties allowed to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Oregonian/OregonLive filed two public records requests last month seeking underlying data used by public health officials and Gov. Kate Brown’s office to allow phased reopenings by counties.

State officials cited broad discretionary powers given to them by the Legislature in choosing not to release the figures.

The Oregon Health Authority has frequently cited the law, ORS 433.008, for refusing to disclose information related to the pandemic. The law essentially exempts information collected by the agency during public health investigations from public disclosure requirements, giving state or county health officials sole authority to determine what data to release and when.

The state health authority has withheld statistics even in instances where counties have released the same type of data.

It’s part of a broader pattern by state public health officials to limit the flow of information about the pandemic.

Although Oregon has one of the lowest infection and death rates in the country, state officials have been secretive on many fronts, initially refusing to release details about outbreaks at long-term care facilities or workplaces or the age ranges for some people infected. They also have blocked the public from listening to daily conference calls between state administrators and lawmakers.

In the latest episode, the newsroom sought daily hospital admission tallies for Marion and Polk county residents. Those are two sets of figures cited by state officials May 14 for initially refusing to allow those counties to reopen.

Oregon Health Authority officials initially said new hospitalizations among residents had increased, leaving those two counties unable to meet the necessary criteria.

But Brown announced the following week that the counties could reopen. Public health officials said new hospitalizations decreased from 24 for Marion County and nine for Polk County between April 26 and May 9 to 14 and six between May 4 through May 17.

The health authority won’t publicly release daily tallies of new county hospitalizations, however, saying it could lead to the identification of someone with the coronavirus.

Yet at least two counties have publicly disclosed new daily hospital admissions: Clackamas County released the data in its application to Brown seeking to reopen and Washington County now posts the information on its website daily.

Washington County discloses daily hospitalizations, even though the Oregon Health Authority won't for other counties.

“We can’t control how other jurisdictions use the data,” Robb Cowie, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, said in an email. “But we are responsible for how we handle it. Our public health officials are extremely sensitive to the release of public health investigation data out of concern that any disclosure – particularly ones that involve small numbers – could discourage people from cooperating with other investigations in the future.”

Meanwhile, the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday separately refused to release the underlying data used to monitor increasing infections tallies by county – a metric that will be considered as officials consider which jurisdictions are allowed to move into Phase 2 reopenings.

State officials have built an online dashboard that shows weekly percentage increases or decreases in cases by county.

The state set a benchmark that no county should have more than a 5% increase in new infections each week, although officials now say they may not strictly adhere to that before allowing counties to move into Phase 2 reopenings.

The math behind such percentage increases or decreases should be simple, by calculating the sum from one week and comparing it to the previous.

But The Oregonian/OregonLive could not replicate the percentages reported on the state dashboard by using the infection statistics released each day by the health authority. Part of the discrepancy could be that the daily totals released by the state include infections and presumptive infections instead of only confirmed infections.

As a result, the newsroom requested the underlying weekly case counts used by the state to calculate the percentages listed on its initial dashboard May 21.

State officials refused, saying they plan to eventually make some data available.

“Aggregated summary tables will be created that will be downloadable,” the agency wrote in denying the newsroom’s public records request. “These take a lot of work and are currently in progress for the public health indicators dashboard. Statewide data will be available for download once those are launched.”

The health authority has regularly cited the public health investigation law for not disclosing statistics about the outbreak.

At the beginning of the pandemic, officials used it to block inquiries about which labs were processing the most coronavirus tests and how many Oregonians had been rejected for testing or were asked to stay home after potential exposure.

While the law makes information obtained during public health investigations confidential and exempt from public records disclosure, nothing prevents health officials from “publishing statistical compilations and reports relating to reportable disease investigation if the compilations and reports do not identify individual cases or sources of information.”

The newsroom appealed an early public records denial to the Oregon attorney general but also was denied.

In response to the newsroom’s appeal for data early in the pandemic, the Attorney General’s Office wrote:

“In conclusion, the legislature entrusted this decision to OHA and OHA has decided not to publish this data. Although we acknowledge the strong public interest in information about the current outbreak, we have no legal authority to override OHA’s decision to withhold the data. OHA is the public health agency in charge and is in the best position to evaluate the wisdom of publishing any particular information.”

-- Brad Schmidt; [email protected]; 503-294-7628; @_brad_schmidt

This story was first published by The Oregonian/OregonLive. It's posted here through an agreement with more than a dozen Oregon organizations to share coronavirus stories.

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