HARRISBURG – The state Department of Health has provided only limited data about coronavirus cases, a move that’s allowed because information about the state’s response to infectious disease outbreaks isn’t covered by the state’s Open Records law, according to government transparency experts.
Health officials on Monday afternoon announced the number of people who’ve tested positive with coronavirus hit 644, and that six people in Pennsylvania have died as a result of the outbreak.
Those deaths include: two people in Northampton County and one each in Allegheny county, Montgomery County, Monroe County and Lackawanna County, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.
She didn’t provide any additional details about the deaths on Monday. In numerous previous press conference and appearances, Levine has declined to provide more information about coronavirus cases.
Levine’s said that when health officials determine there’s a public health interest in releasing additional information they will provide it.
On Monday, she said that 60 of the people identified with coronavirus have been hospitalized. She also disclosed for the first time that the state’s hospitals have 2,000 ventilators and that of the state’s 3,400 intensive care beds, 40 percent are available.
The Health Department’s release of information is governed by the Pennsylvania Disease Prevention and Control Law, rather than the Open Records Law, said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.
There have been repeated legal challenges to try to get the Health Department to release more information about disease outbreaks over the years and they’ve always failed based on the determination that the Disease Prevention and Control Law supersedes the Open Records Law, she said.
The Disease Prevention and Control Law, which dates to 1955, “gives the state Department of Health and local departments of health wide latitude in determining what information to release,” said Erik Arneson, director of the Office of Open Records.
He pointed to a 2018 case in which the Allentown Morning Call had sought to get the state to disclose more information food poisoning sicknesses and deaths. In that case, the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control had identified one case of E. coli poisoning in a two-month period and the newspaper asked the state Department of Health to disclose in which county that incident occurred.
The Health Department refused to say and the Office of Open Records sided with the agency, saying that the information was confidential based on the Disease Control and Prevention Law.
Arneson added he feels that the Department of Health has been relatively transparent in determining when and what type of information can be released about the coronavirus outbreak.
“During the current coronavirus pandemic, we're all seeing how critically important it is for the public to have accurate, timely information,” he said. “I applaud the Department of Health and Dr. Levine specifically for providing so much information.”
He said that the state probably should revisit the confidentiality provisions allowed by the Disease Control and Prevention Law because “some future administration may not be so forthcoming.“