Despite a self-imposed deadline from department officials, the Mississippi State Department of Health has so far failed to produce the names of Forrest County long-term care facilities where, as of Friday, 27 patients have died of complications from COVID-19.
Following a lawsuit filed by The PineBelt NEWS, the department was ordered Tuesday to release the names of the facilities by Chancellor Tiffany Grove of Hinds County.
Publisher David Gustafson requested the records via email that same day and was told by Ingrid Dave Williams, counsel for the Health Department, that officials were “…in the process of determining which public records it has that are responsive to your request.” Williams said the newspaper would receive a response “no later than May 29, 2020,” which was Friday.
The lawsuit was filed May 12 by Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence after the newspaper made numerous attempts to obtain the information through traditional means, including a public records request and the filing of a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Gustafson said the newspaper chose to pursue relief through the courts when officials from the commission told him it would likely be several months before they could take up the case.
Grove ruled that the Health Department failed to comply with state law in producing the requested records within seven days and also failed to provide a written explanation of why the documents could not be produced in that timeframe. She also ruled that the department failed to provide a written statement of a specific exemption to state law relied upon for denial of the requested records.
The judge gave state officials seven days to comply with her order.