Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population lives in nursing homes, yet the AARP reported this week that roughly a quarter of the nation's known coronavirus deaths have come from residents and staff at long-term health care facilities. The AARP warned that’s likely an undercount because not all states are publicly reporting that information yet.
And in Mississippi, 51 percent of the state's deaths (341 out of 670 as of Wednesday) were at long-term care facilities, compared to just 12 percent of overall cases at such facilities, which in addition to nursing homes include some others like personal care homes and drug rehab centers.
That's a scary situation for the residents and their families, as well as the staff and management. While the state Health Department has reported the number of long-term care facility cases by county, it has not named facilities. But this week a Hinds County judge ruled in favor of a Hattiesburg newspaper that sued to gain access to the records.
Previously the Health Department had tried to ignore the public records requests filed by the Pine Belt News. The state had contended it was too busy to provide a listing of facilities with outbreaks in Forrest County.
That was a weak argument considering how much other coronavirus information the state has been able to track and share easily in this digital age, and Chancellor Tiffany Grove found that the Health Department had failed in its duty by law to provide public access to public records. She ruled providing the records would serve the public interest and ordered the Health Department either release the names or provide a legal reason why not.
"We will absolutely comply with the elements of that ruling, and when we get those requests, we will do with them as we're supposed to and respond within seven days," Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said during his daily press conference Wednesday.
Reading between the lines, that means the Health Department doesn't intend to do regular updates listing the locations of coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes and similar facilities but will only do so in response to public records requests. Dobbs also left wiggle room that the Health Department might try to find a legal excuse for denying records requests.
We’re sympathetic to the plight of nursing home management as they battle an epidemic not of their own creation. There is a stigma associated with the virus that could hurt their business prospects and make it harder to recruit employees.
But in this case the public benefit for releasing the information outweighs the costs of keeping it secret, as the judge found and as news organizations like the Mississippi Press Association and organizations for the elderly like the AARP have advocated.
We should not be afraid of more knowledge for people. Information empowers citizens in a democracy to act rationally; that is, after all, why Dobbs and Gov. Tate Reeves do daily briefings about the coronavirus.
Front-line workers should be able to assess the risks before they go into work, and families should have as much information as possible when deciding how to proceed with care of their loved ones. And the public should be able to know if certain facilities, or those with common ownership, have tended to have the worst outbreaks, which could indicate laxness in enforcing rules intended to keep residents safe.
The best policy from government is to always default to transparency. Beyond just responding to public records requests per the judge’s ruling, Dobbs and company should follow the AARP’s recommendation and expand their daily reports to list specific nursing homes with outbreaks.
That preservation of life is the goal of everyone involved: health care, government and media. Working together with full disclosure is the best way to make that happen.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of the Columbian-Progress in Columbia, Mississippi.