Since the first COVID-19 case in Virginia was announced, InsideNoVa.com has been posting a daily update on the spread of coronavirus in our region, relying on statistics provided by the Virginia Department of Health.
The reaction on social media each day is predictable. While some commenters express alarm at the spread of the virus and pledge to wear masks and continue physical distancing, others accuse us of exaggerating the impact of the virus and say we all need to get on with our lives.
Regardless of which side you’re on, the facts are important. And over the nearly four months since the virus began spreading, the state has made more and more of these facts available. But persuading the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam to do so has been like pulling teeth. And that is worrisome because, as Northam reminds us every chance he gets, the pandemic is not over.
First, the state refused to provide data on the number of cases by Zip code. Watching Northam and Dr. Norman Oliver, the state’s health commissioner, tiptoe around this issue during their regular news conferences was painful. They cited privacy reasons, as if announcing that three people in the 22192 Zip code had the virus would somehow violate the privacy of those individuals. They argued that some Zip codes cross jurisdictional boundaries, which is true but doesn’t really matter.
Finally, in early May, a full two months into the pandemic, the Zip code data was released. In large counties like Prince William and Fairfax, the detailed data highlighted how much more rapidly the virus was spreading in lower-income areas and in areas more populated by Latinos and Blacks. This is absolutely critical information that was not clear until then.
At the same time, InsideNoVa and many other news organizations around the state began asking for data about cases and deaths in specific nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Anecdotal reports from residents and employees of these facilities and their relatives indicated the virus was out of control in many of them.
For weeks, Northam and Dr. Oliver tap-danced around the issue, citing a vague section of state law that appears to protect the privacy of institutions, such as nursing homes, as if they are individuals. Finally, after the federal government released facility-specific data in early June that was in some cases inaccurate, the state followed suit on June 19 and released specific data on every nursing home and assisted-living facility with at least two cases (considered an “outbreak”).
Our analysis of that data was startling: In Northern Virginia, fully two-thirds of the coronavirus-related deaths occurred as the result of outbreaks at these long-term care facilities. Five facilities in the region, including Birmingham Green in Manassas, have had over 30 coronavirus-related deaths. Again, this is critical information that was withheld from the public for far too long.
But there is more. What about outbreaks at prisons, businesses, schools, churches and other settings? The Prince William Health District has had five more outbreaks at those kinds of facilities for which the state is still refusing to release data. As businesses reopen and students return to schools and colleges this fall, those outbreaks are going to increase. Only by knowing all the details of them can the public and health officials react appropriately.
The state cannot have it both ways. If the law allows it to release data on long-term care facilities, then the law allows it to release data on all outbreaks. Asked about this during a news conference last week, Northam tiptoed again.
“If it becomes a public health issue, crisis, then we’ll certainly look into that.”
Governor, as you have told us on so many occasions, this is a public health crisis. Stop refusing to release data that would help the public understand the true nature of the crisis until it’s too late, as in the case of long-term care facilities. Only through complete transparency can the public trust the state’s response.