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OPEN GOVERNMENT AND COVID-19

Our Opinion: Virus outbreak sites shouldn't be a state secret

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State officials are withholding vital public health information from Wilson County residents, leaving us in the dark on a COVID-19 outbreak at a Wilson food processing plant. 

This week, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 13 coronavirus outbreaks at food manufacturers in 11 North Carolina counties — Wilson, Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Robeson, Sampson, Union and Wilkes. A total of 479 people at those facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Officials won’t identify the processing plants where these outbreaks have occurred, making the statistical information useless at best and irresponsible at worst as communities resort to rumor and speculation to suss out sites where the risk of coronavirus exposure may be elevated. There’s currently no evidence that the novel coronavirus is a foodborne illness, but scientists are still learning about COVID-19 and consumers should have the right to make informed decisions. 

Times reporter Brie Handgraaf filed a public records request to learn which Wilson plant or plants are involved. As of this writing, we’re being stonewalled. 

“We cannot confirm outbreaks at specific facilities,” NCDHHS communications manager SarahLewis Peel wrote in a Tuesday email. “The reason we do not report individual facility information is because providing specific health information, like small numbers of positive test results for a reportable disease in combination with the geographic location at the facility level, makes the protected health information of the individuals served by that facility identifiable.” 

Processing and packing plants employ dozens to hundreds of workers. Naming the businesses and disclosing the number of employees who tested positive for COVID-19 doesn’t identify those patients. 

Peel cited the North Carolina reportable disease confidentiality law, N.C. General Statute 130A-143. But that law no more prevents the state from naming businesses with disease outbreaks than it confirms the existence of Bigfoot. 

The statute states: “All information and records, whether publicly or privately maintained, that identify a person who has AIDS virus infection or who has or may have a disease or condition required to be reported pursuant to the provisions of this article shall be strictly confidential,” followed by no fewer than 11 exceptions. 

Naming a food processing plant doesn’t identify individual patients who work there. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. That’s not a legitimate reason or even a good-faith argument — it’s an intellectually dishonest excuse.

Jill D. Moore, associate professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in 2015 that “both HIPAA and the state confidentiality law allow disclosure of communicable disease information that doesn’t identify individuals.”

The Department of Health and Human Services relied on the same willful misinterpretation of state law to delay identifying the nursing homes and congregate living facilities where COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported. 

The Wilson Times joined a coalition of 19 news outlets seeking details on nursing home outbreaks. Our attorneys, Amanda Martin and Mike Tadych, held a Monday teleconference with DHHS general counsel Lisa Corbett in an effort to obtain the information without filing a public records lawsuit. Within hours of that phone call, the state agency had changed its tune and decided to name names. 

State officials issued new guidance to county and regional public health agencies, allowing the Wilson County Health Department to reveal that Longleaf Neuro-Medical Treatment Center had reported 31 positive COVID-19 cases and one death and Elm City Assisted Living charted four positive cases. 

The DHHS chose to exercise one of the 11 exceptions in the confidentiality law — determining that releasing information on nursing homes “is necessary to protect the public health.” That allowed officials to fulfill the Times’ and other news outlets’ requests without conceding that the patient confidentiality statute applies to people rather than buildings. 

Now the state seems to believe it’s in the public interest to know which nursing homes have COVID-19 outbreaks, but not which facilities that process, package and ship the food we eat. That logical fallacy doesn’t pass the smell test. 

There’s no genuine legal argument here — it’s a matter of common sense. 

Requesting this information isn’t merely an academic exercise. We’re not looking to pick a fight. We’re asking the questions because Wilson County residents deserve to know which industrial food facility has experienced an outbreak, how many patients have tested positive and what steps are being taken to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 there.

You have the right to know if you, your family members or your friends and neighbors have potentially been exposed to the novel coronavirus. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is denying you that right. 

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