Deletion of info hampers ability to cover COVID-19

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Something odd was going on? In at least four counties, the local health department was redacting information from certificates of death that the newspapers routinely receive.


The general consensus was that the deletions were tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. That obviously raised the question – why?


It appears the problem will be resolved in favor of public access. The Public Access Counselor is working on an opinion based on a complaint filed by one of the four journalists who brought the issue to my attention.


The rationale for the redactions is tied to I.C. 16-41-8-1. Article 41 addresses the prevention and control of disease. Chapter 8 concerns confidentiality requirement for information on communicable diseases. The statute says “a person may not disclose or be compelled to disclose medical or epidemiological information involving a communicable disease or other serious disease” as set forth by a list created by administrative rule by the state Department of Health as required by I.C. 16-41-2-1.

The Public Access Counselor is working on an opinion based on a complaint filed by one of the four journalists who brought the issue to my attention.

I found the list of communicable diseases at 410 Indiana Administrative Code 1-2.5-75. It’s a lengthy list that includes innocuous things such as animal bites, influenza, measles and mumps and more intimate items, such as sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.


That knowledge at least presents a rationale for the confidentiality requirement added by the state legislature.


I’m old enough to recall the fear of AIDS across the country. I was a journalist at the Noblesville Ledger when Ryan White transferred to Hamilton Heights High School after his hometown school district in Howard County blocked him from in-school attendance.


AIDS was a terrifying disease with no cure and there wasn’t a clear understanding initially of how the disease could be transmitted. A stigma also became associated with HIV as it became clear that homosexuals and needle-sharing drug users were groups who seemed to be particularly victimized. (Ryan White contracted the disease through a contaminated blood transfusion needed because he suffered from hemophilia.)


To encourage AIDS victims to seek medical help, the legislature included a confidentiality provision in the statute.


There wasn’t any concern about public knowledge that a person’s death may have been connected to influenza, chicken pox, mumps, measles or any other communicable disease. So a blanket of secrecy connected to the entire list makes no sense.


But in Jennings, Hancock, Howard and LaPorte counties, the above statute has been cited as a reason information related to the cause of deaths are being redacted. How many other counties might be doing the same — I can’t say.

I expect the county health departments across the state will be reminded that certificates of death need to be supplied when requested.


The deletions hamper journalists’ ability to report the impact of COVID-19 on their communities. It also raised a concern about the motivation behind the secrecy of COVID-19 reporting.


Sharing some research with Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, it appears the deletions may have been an innocent misreading of the law. While I.C. 16-41-8-1 addresses epidemiological information, it doesn’t apply to vital statistics records, such at the certificates of death.

That specific record was ruled by the Indiana Supreme Court to be a disclosable public record in Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh County Health Department in 2014.


I expect the county health departments across the state will be reminded that certificates of death need to be supplied when requested.


I do hope the impression that the redactions were not done with malicious intent. I’ll admit 40 years of journalistic involvement has created a cynical edge.


A deliberate redaction could have been a calculated move that leaves the public dependent upon state or local officials for a depiction of the pandemic’s spread and human toll? If the public can’t independently verify the information, it opens the door to manipulation of the data to make government response appear more favorable.


Any deletion of data could make it easier for local or state official to make decisions to open back the economy without the public understanding the true health ramifications or current status of the pandemic. You only need look to Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis’ refused to make state COVID-19 data publicly available for weeks while he rapidly opened up Florida from pandemic restrictions. The result – Florida recently recorded a level of new coronavirus cases only exceeded by the countries of Brazil, India and the United States.

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