Josh Bergeron: More than ever, transparency should reign supreme during outbreak

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2020

There are times when pushing for transparency is a lonely battle.

Reporters work to obtain data, correspondence or other information about a topic; government isn’t particularly interested in being open, denying or delaying responses to records requests; and the general public’s attention is trained on other matters.

Not so with COVID-19 and data about its spread here. For weeks, the Post has heard from the public about data that they wanted to see released, particularly when Rowan County was just putting out case numbers.

One of the first questions we heard from readers was why the Rowan County Health department and, as a result, the Post, was not releasing the number of people who had recovered.  After all, most people do recover from the virus and its associated disease COVID-19.

The Rowan County Health Department was quick to respond to our appeal for more data that included the number of people who had recovered And on March 31, when there were just 24 cases here, the county’s daily update included the number of folks who had recovered and those who were hospitalized at the time. The county also created a data portal with a zip code map that’s been an invaluable, regular resource.

With some prodding in the form of records request from the Post and public demands, too, the county has expanded the data available on the portal to include race, age and gender. On a weekly basis, the county releases the number of ventilators used and total COVID-19-designated beds.

Last week, just a several hours after the Post submitted a public records request for the specific number of deaths at the Citadel, a nursing home that’s become the site of a large COVID-19 outbreak, the county responded by releasing those numbers in its daily update — 15 at one facility alone. That daily update also noted all but one death had not occurred at a nursing home and that the average age of all deaths was 83.

Consider the importance of the data Rowan County residents now have at their fingertips, either through the county’s online portal or in media reports.

By being transparent, Rowan County has done its part to ensure there’s no undue panic from COVID-19. When there was a 90-case spike earlier this month, the public knew that was the product of the Citadel outbreak. The public also knows that a majority of the deaths in the county are a result of the Citadel outbreak.

People who are black or African-American comprise just 16.8% of the county’s population, according to U.S. Census data. We now know that they are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 here, representing 26.13 % of local cases.

And while nursing homes here have been hit hardest by the outbreak, the county’s data portal proves that all ages are being affected by the virus. There are at least 62 positive cases in each of the county’s five age brackets, with the exception of those below 18, where there are two cases.

Locals should also know that Rowan is one of the hardest-hit counties in the state, with the fifth-most cases and the second-largest number of deaths.

The Post will continue to request data when necessary and reserves the right to in the future to say more transparency is needed. But this is a moment to say that Rowan County deserves credit for the speed at which its staff members have embraced transparency and responded to requests.

More than once, county staff members have told Post newsroom employees they would willingly release information about the COVID-19 outbreak, with exceptions for items that identify patients, whenever it’s requested. They’ve lived up to that promise to date.

Perhaps the praise sounds like patting someone on the back for doing their job, but there are too many other counties that haven’t released as much data as Rowan. And to be clear, it’s not good enough to wait for a public request. Now, more than ever, government needs to be proactively transparent about a virus outbreak that’s shuttered large swaths of our economy and left too many of our friends, family and neighbors without jobs.

Neighboring Davidson County, where there are 114 cases, is like a number of North Carolina counties. The public doesn’t have any more easily accessible information than the number of positives, those who have been cleared, active cases and deaths. They should look to Rowan County as an example.

State government, meanwhile, which has the ability and resources to provide much more granular data than it currently does, must do so. That’s particularly true in cases where counties aren’t offering more than basic data about case outcomes. And it’s why the Salisbury Post has joined an effort with news outlets across the state in pushing the for the release of more data about nursing homes.

This is a moment when transparency is among the most important tasks for public officials and facilities affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. The public is demanding it, and embracing it will provide the public with much-needed data about when it’s OK to start returning to some semblance of normal.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.