Mississippi’s State Department of Health says its been too busy dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to comply with the state’s Public Records Act. It’s going to have to spend some time explaining in court why that’s a legitimate excuse.
Last week, we reported that The PineBelt NEWS has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health for refusing to release the names of long-term care facilities (mostly nursing homes) in Forrest County that, as of last count, have had 19 deaths from the highly contagious respiratory disease.
While there is no doubting the Health Department has its hands full dealing with the pandemic, that’s not why it’s ignoring the public records request. The agency has made it clear that, even though it’s legal to identify the facilities with outbreaks, it has chosen not to.
Similar secrecy had been initially adopted in some other states, too, but they eventually caved under public pressure, in part because it became obvious that nursing homes were especially vulnerable to fatalities or other bad outcomes from the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, defends his lack of transparency by saying he thinks it would stigmatize nursing homes to be named and make it more difficult for them to recruit and hire staff.
However Dobbs doesn’t seem to mind the “stigma” placed on restaurants when the state health department sends out press releases when a dishwasher is diagnosed with hepatitis.
Frankly, we see no difference.
No matter what Dobbs’ personal opinions are or how busy his people are, the questions in this dispute are pretty simple. Is the information requested of public interest, and is it a public record?
Clearly it’s of public interest, since long-term care facilities account for almost half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, of which the updates from the state Department of Health provide a daily reminder.
Is the information public record? It obviously is in other states, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in Mississippi’s Public Records Act to say our state is different.
Dobbs has done many good things in calmly helping Reeves shepherd Mississippi through this crisis. The good doctor, though, is wrong on this one.
If the governor won’t tell him, maybe the judge will.