Transparency is our best defense to defeat COVID-19

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Secrecy is the best friend of COVID-19. It spreads like wildfire when no one knows it is present in your community or if you’ve been exposed to it through a family member or grocery store or at work.

Conversely, transparency is our best defense to defeat the Coronavirus. When federal, state and local officials are forthright about what is occurring and what is being done to combat the pandemic, it builds trust among all that the situation is serious and each of us must modify our behavior to protect ourselves and everyone around us. Transparency also holds our elected officials accountable in the fight against the virus.

Unfortunately, there have been struggles and glitches as Indiana deals with the pandemic. Early on as the possible magnitude of the crisis unfolded, many hospitals and county health departments balked at revealing basic information, such as how many ICU beds there were. What about ventilators, which quickly became a key piece of medical equipment? I still haven’t heard a good explanation for the secrecy.

We’ll never know how many cases might have been prevented if early on Hoosiers could have learned about potential exposure to victims and self-isolated to limit the spread to others.

Was it to avoid a panic? If that was the case, then they hadn’t learned the lesson of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic. The lesson then was to provide the public with information to build the level of trust so that when restrictions were needed, there would be buy-in and compliance. (I recommend The Great Influenza by John M. Berry as background material for this pandemic.)

As positive cases first cropped up around the state, many county health departments balked over providing basic details over those infected — citing HIPAA. Problem is that county health departments are not subject to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act because they aren’t medical providers who bill electronically.

We’ll never know how many cases might have been prevented if early on Hoosiers could have learned about potential exposure to victims and self-isolated to limit the spread to others.

And reporters were not even asking for names, just gender, age, and town or city or maybe where the victim could have exposed others prior to showing symptoms. Journalists understand personal privacy, but COVID-19 infection brings no stigma, like AIDS did at one point in time.

The value in protecting others should have over-ridden the concern that someone possibly could have been identified by the clues given through gender, age and hometown.

Most recently, we have the situation in Vanderburgh County where a judge has ordered four individuals to self-isolate after exposure to confirmed COVID-19 patients when the four refused voluntarily to remove themselves from public contact. An Evansville Courier & Press reporter was denied the names of the individuals subject to the court orders.

A court order is an official action, in this case restricting the liberty of four Hoosiers. Legally, we have historically frowned upon secret courts or “star chamber justice.” That alone should be enough to make the names public. Beyond that, the public should be able to protect themselves from exposure to individuals who have demonstrated no regard for the health of others. Since the four haven’t been tested, authorities can’t even argue they are protecting the medical records of the four.

We also have the state issuing warnings to businesses that are violating the governor’s executive orders to shutter or limit their business operations, but identifying those businesses has been denied when asked by the press. What interest is the state protecting in this situation?

Again, identifying those in violation of the governor’s order to the detriment of the community’s health will put the offenders on notice of the seriousness of their actions and encourage others to follow the order.

Remember: Secrecy only helps the virus.

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