Mississippi’s State Department of Health says its been too busy dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to comply with the state’s Public Records Act.
It’s going to have to spend some time explaining in court why that’s a legitimate excuse.
A Hattiesburg newspaper, the Pine Belt News, has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health for refusing to release the names of long-term care facilities (mostly nursing homes) in Forrest County that, as of last count, have had 14 deaths from the highly contagious respiratory disease. (In the interest of full disclosure, the Pine Belt News is a sister newspaper of the C-P.)
The editor and publisher in Hattiesburg says the newspaper made several attempts to obtain the information through traditional means, only to be stonewalled by the Health Department. After getting the “we’re too busy” response to even provide a legal justification for not complying with a public records request, the Hattiesburg newspaper decided to sue. It has the support of the Mississippi Press Association and other news organizations.
While there is no doubting the Health Department has its hands full dealing with the pandemic, that’s not why it’s ignoring the public records request. The agency has made it clear that, even though it’s legal to identify the facilities with outbreaks, it has chosen not to.
Similar secrecy had been initially adopted in some other states, too, but they eventually caved under public pressure, in part because it became obvious that nursing homes were especially vulnerable to fatalities from the novel coronavirus. According to the Pine Belt News, now 38 states release either a full or partial list of long-term care facilities with outbreaks.
Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, defends his lack of transparency by saying he thinks it would stigmatize nursing homes to be named and make it more difficult for them to recruit and hire staff. Is Dobbs saying that it’s OK for nurses and nurses’ aides to not know what they might be getting into when they apply for a job at a facility that is in the midst of a serious outbreak? How is it looking out for the interest of those front-line workers to keep them uninformed about the magnitude of the risks they are taking until they’re suited up?
No matter what Dobbs’ personal opinions are or how busy his people are, the questions in this dispute are pretty simple. Is the information requested of public interest, and is it a public record?
Clearly it’s of public interest, since long-term care facilities account for almost half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, of which the updates from the state Department of Health provide a daily reminder. Gov. Tate Reeves, who heavily counts on Dobbs for medical advice, has just announced a major initiative — recommended by the White House — to test every Mississippi resident and employee of long-term care facilities over the next two weeks, since they are hotbeds for the spread of the disease. As that testing progresses, the number of cases is almost certainly going to rise. That will further increase the interest in knowing the facilities behind the numbers.
Is the information public record? It obviously is in other states, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in Mississippi’s Public Records Act to say our state is different. Dobbs has done many good things in calmly helping Reeves shepherd Mississippi through this crisis. The good doctor, though, is wrong on this one. If the governor won’t tell him, maybe the judge will.