La. law allows Dept. of Health to block COVID data, selectively release information
BATON ROUGE – Aspects of how Louisiana has compiled data and responded to the coronavirus pandemic is shielded from public view by a law that keeps health department data secret.
The Louisiana Department of Health cited the law when it denied a public records request from WBRZ last week.
The records sought through the request were deemed "confidential records of a public health investigation,” a state attorney responded in a boilerplate statement. The records can be hidden through a law that allows COVID response information to not be “subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
The Public Records Act requires most government documents be made public when requested by anyone interested in reviewing the files. In some cases, such as a criminal investigation, documents are withheld from being revealed.
The 1990s-era law allows the state to block information tied to a health investigation and spells out civil penalties for someone who leaks information, including a $1,000 to $5,000 fine.
WBRZ filed a public records request last week to ascertain additional information about how the state was tracking so-called “breakthrough COVID cases” – cases of people testing positive after fully completing a coronavirus vaccine regimen. To be fully vaccinated, a person must be 14 days from the second of the two-dose shot or the same amount of time from the single-dose vaccine.
WBRZ previously reported there were, as of last week, at least 170 people who tested positive after being considered fully vaccinated, though the state refused to break the cases down by COVID vaccine brands. Louisiana is inoculating patients through a two-dose vaccine from Moderna or Pfizer. On Tuesday, the single-dose vaccine from Johnson and Johnson, was halted over blood clot concerns. Up until April 13, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was administered in Louisiana.
WBRZ first began asking for information in March. Health officials said they were concerned about releasing the information without putting the data in context but later revealed the number of positive cases in people who were vaccinated. But, when asked for more information, a spokesperson with the health department refused to elaborate.
“We are not releasing that at this time,” a Louisiana Department of Health spokesperson said in response to questions on April 8 asking for a breakdown of which one of the three vaccines were given to people who later tested positive.
The department only said cases were “pretty spread across the board” among the three vaccines.
The Department of Health has used high-profile news conferences to warn Louisianans of surging coronavirus cases since last March and, since early 2021, to push citizens to get vaccinated. News conferences have been shown on TV and streamed online either daily or weekly since March 2020.
Government officials have used COVID health data to map the state’s progress from shutdown to reopening.
In a June 2020 news conference, the governor told a television audience, data was at the forefront of decision-making: "As always, [the state health department is] working to improve the management of data that it receives…[to] provide the most accurate data to the public. Also for me, to understand what's going on with respect to the pandemic, because the very same data that you all see is the data we make our decisions on going forward,” the governor said.
The state has tracked coronavirus data on a public database and was tracking “recoveries” until recently when health leaders eliminated daily reporting data of patients who were presumed to have recovered from coronavirus.
State health officials said the recovered data was useful early on but became obsolete.
“…Recovered numbers…were a somewhat useful measure earlier in the pandemic. However, given the length of the pandemic and its evolution, recovery numbers are less useful when we take into account people with long-term complications from a COVID infection and the potential for reinfections.”
The Department of Health said the law is useful in helping health officials maintain a thorough investigation of a health crisis. Confidentiality is "essential to LDH's mission to investigate incidents which have the potential to impact the health and safety of the citizens of the State of Louisiana and which might have severe impact on their health and safety if not addressed in a timely and thorough manner," the health department's spokesperson said in a statement.
"The confidentiality provisions promote timely reporting and cooperation with investigators by impacted parties who are assured that their identities or any potentially identifying information will not be released to the public by the investigating agency."
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