Judge: Health officials must respond to public records request

Published 7:34 am Wednesday, May 27, 2020

JACKSON (AP) — A Mississippi judge ruled Tuesday that the state Health Department must respond to a newspaper’s public records request about long-term care facilities where outbreaks of the new coronavirus have occurred.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Tiffany Grove granted an emergency injunction in favor of Hattiesburg Publishing Inc., which owns the Pine Belt News.

Grove wrote that the Health Department has seven days to either provide information about what the newspaper is requesting or cite a specific exemption in the state Public Records Act for denying the information.

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The judge wrote that “the public interest is served by maintaining transparency and public access to public information when the appropriate requests for such information are made.”

The publishing company filed a lawsuit on May 12 against the Health Department, saying that the department had improperly denied the newspaper’s request for the names of Forrest County nursing homes where at least one case of COVID-19 had been found. The lawsuit said the department spokeswoman did not provide a specific reason for not releasing the information and said her action violated the state’s public records law.

Other news organizations have sought the names of nursing homes where coronavirus cases have been found.

The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said in response to questions at a May 13 news conference that the Health Department will not release the names of long-term care facilities where residents or employees test positive for COVID-19, just as it does not release the names of facilities where other diseases such as tuberculosis are found.

“Ever since I’ve been at the Department of Health, we’ve recognized the real potential danger of identifying nursing homes in outbreaks,” Dobbs said. “In other states, we’ve seen adverse events where people are identified and stigmatized and even the centers were stigmatized. If a center gets stigmatized, there’s difficulty finding staff, and then there is a possibility of undermining the integrity of the care.”

In a news release Tuesday, Pine Belt News publisher David Gustafson praised Grove’s ruling.

“Unfortunately, we live in a day and age when secrecy in government generates suspicion and mistrust on the part of our citizenry and I’m proud to lead a news organization that isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions and seek the answers that our readers deserve,” Gustafson said.

The Health Department said Tuesday that at least 1,727 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 332 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

During Tuesday’s press conference in Jackson, The Vicksburg Post requested the state begin reporting active cases in long-term care facilities rather than providing the cumulative number the state has provided each day.

In the case of Warren County, the state is reporting 36 cases connected to long-term care facilities but has not provided how many of those cases have recovered.

Dobbs also said Tuesday that the department has completed coronavirus testing on about 60 percent of residents and employees of long-term care facilities in the state, with a goal of testing all of them within days.