The Mississippi Department of Health has a list of all the state’s nursing homes with outbreaks of coronavirus, but the agency claims it’s too busy to release it to the public.
The Clarion-Ledger filed a public records request on April 2 asking for the names of nursing homes with coronavirus outbreaks. In violation of state open records law, the Department of Health did not respond for a month.
Other states, such as Florida, California, and Georgia, have been publicly identifying nursing homes with outbreaks. The Mississippi AARP has called on the state to release this information. In Lauderdale County, a hotspot for COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes, The Meridian Star slammed the state in an editorial for withholding its list of nursing homes.
While nursing home residents make less than 13 percent of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases, they make up nearly half of the state’s coronavirus deaths.
The Mississippi Department of Health has repeatedly to refuse to provide the names of nursing homes with coronavirus because of privacy concerns. When pressed with a public records request, the agency declined to cite any law to back up this policy.
In a letter sent on May 1, 2020, the Department of Health said it was effectively ignoring all public records requests during the coronavirus pandemic, without citing any legal justification for this policy. The agency claimed it “does not have the capacity or resources to respond” to the records request due to the pandemic.
When State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs was asked this week if there was a list of nursing homes with outbreaks readily available, the state’s top health official said yes.
“Of course we have a list of the nursing homes,” Dobbs said.
When asked about his agency’s response to the Clarion Ledger’s public records request, Dobbs said, “I believe that letter was really more about the legal wrangling back and forth of why we’re not releasing them.”
But the agency’s letter had no mention of any “legal wrangling.” It cited no state statute or legal reasoning for withholding the names of nursing homes with infections, and when Dobbs spoke about his agency’s decision to withhold that information, he referenced no legal reason to do so.
“We’ve had outbreaks in long-term care for years and to protect the identity and the privacy of the residents, and also to prevent stigmatization of different facilities, it’s always been our stance not to release long-term care stuff,” Dobbs said at a press conference Monday. “…We still have strong concerns it’s the wrong thing to do to release the names of the nursing homes.”
On Thursday, May 14, the Clarion-Ledger filed a public records complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission over the Health Department’s failure to produce its list of nursing homes with coronavirus outbreaks.
Clarion-Ledger: State health agency says its too busy to tell public which nursing homes have COVID-19 outbreaks
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