In California, Massachusetts and Washington state, universities are canceling in-person classes and instead offering instruction to students online.
In New York, the governor has mandated a one-mile “containment zone” around the epicenter of that state’s COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
And in Oregon… state and county health officials are struggling over whether it’s OK to publicly disclose the gender of individual patients confirmed to have the virus.
This, apparently, is Oregon in the midst of a public health emergency.
From the start, Oregon’s response has been one marked by half-measures and mixed messages. In some cases, such as the shortage of tests from the federal government for the virus, Oregon isn’t to blame. But in others, the state has been hampered by its confused approach and reflexive lack of transparency. All of which raises the question: Is this a public health emergency or not?
Let’s start with information. After all, the state doesn’t have a vaccine. It doesn’t have a cure. It doesn’t have a lot of answers about this new coronavirus. But it does have some information – the best tool for helping Oregonians understand the scope, risk and nature of this virus.
Unfortunately, it’s not sharing a whole lot, and certainly providing far less than other states which have disclosed patients’ ages, places they visited and even, in New York’s case, the public transportation line they took. While Oregon is providing the number of patients in each county and broad age ranges for those confirmed to have the virus, the information is so unspecific that it risks becoming meaningless.
In fact, in the first confirmed case in Oregon, it was school district personnel – not health officials – who alerted the public that the patient was an elementary school employee. While health officials did note that the patient had been at the school, the lack of detail reflects more of a concern for privacy of an individual than a recognition of the potential for public exposure. Such selective and parsimonious information does not engender trust or faith that public health leaders are being up front.
Oregon Health Authority spokesman Robb Cowie said the reasons stem from Justice Department advice to keep confidential such information. He said the agency’s interpretation of a statute calling for information obtained in the course of a public health investigation to be kept confidential. It’s an overly broad and absurd reading of what an “investigation” includes. But it’s also completely unjustified in the event of a public health emergency – especially when the lack of testing has undermined the ability to conduct a robust public health investigation in the first place.
County health officials, too, are worried about the potential identification of individuals by giving such information as gender and age range for confirmed cases in their counties. It’s not only a misplaced fear, it begs the question of who is in charge – the state or counties? This is either a public health emergency in which the state takes charge, or it’s not.
And while health officials, on one hand, acknowledge that the virus is likely widespread, they aren’t taking any measures to advise the public to limit close contact with one another. Schools remain open, despite the reality that kids sneeze and cough on one another without practicing the best hygiene. The state hasn’t cautioned against large gatherings and is mostly targeting its messaging toward the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. While they are certainly more vulnerable, it’s a mistake to ignore the fact that young people can and are contracting the virus which they can easily carry to others who studiously follow the state’s advice.
When reliable sources provide information, it helps people both understand the risk and avoid complacency. A baseline of frequent, honest and transparent communication ensures that whatever steps the state must take in the future will be built on a level of trust from the public. But in the absence of information, people will seek it from whatever source is willing to fill the vacuum, reliable or not.
And in an emergency, that’s the worst possible outcome.