California government withholding information on coronavirus

It is a tragedy that unfolds in real time. At a skilled nursing facility in the town of Visalia, Tulare County, 71 residents and 41 staff have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Six residents of the Redwood Springs Health Center, which has 176 beds, have died and eight are in acute care, according to Anita Hubbard, the centre’s administrator.

But without the details from Hubbard, little will be known about one of the worst outbreaks of the deadly virus in California at a senior citizen facility. Tulare County stopped commenting for five days, during which time the number of positive cases skyrocketed. Like other cities and counties in the state, California does not require it to release such information, even in the midst of a pandemic.

As the new coronavirus continues to claim hundreds of lives across California, a secondary victim of the crisis is emerging: government transparency. Much of what we know about COVID-19 in nursing homes and facilities for the elderly does not come from public agencies, but from private sources: parents, staff and administrators.

“I want updates,” said Christina Valencia, whose grandmother was among many who tested positive for the disease at a nursing home in Redondo Beach. “You should have the right to know how many residents are positive.”

Californians are ignorant of much more than retirement homes.

Information on the availability of personal protective equipment, or PPE, is lacking, increasing the anxiety of healthcare workers. Coroners are not disclosing information about the deaths. Until recently, California did not disclose information on the racial distribution of those infected and killed.

The government’s confusion has undermined public understanding of the crisis and potentially compromised California’s response, according to some health and civil liberties experts. But there are few rules on what cities and counties should disclose and little guidance from senior California officials, including Governor Gavin Newsom, on what should be disclosed in an emergency.

Dr Richard Jackson, who served as California state health official under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said it was essential for public health agencies and political leaders to educate residents by sharing data on local hot spots, infection rates and demographics in their communities.

“As a general principle, the public has a right to important information that could influence their own health,” said Jackson, professor emeritus at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.

Such transparency, some experts say, is essential to maintain public trust in the midst of the disaster.

“Distrust is the enemy of good public policy and certainly of good public health policy,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

As California spearheads a blitz to fight the rapidly evolving pandemic, state and local agencies are overwhelmed and some difficulties in sharing information are inevitable. Yet California’s release of alarming key knowledge worries groups that care for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sent Newsom a letter asking for more transparency on the effects of the pandemic on people of color and other at-risk groups.

“From what we’ve seen so far, we know this virus has impacted black communities and we have no idea what’s necessarily going on here in California,” Abre ‘Conner said. , Staff Counsel for the Northern California ACLU. “We would like to see more data now, today. “

Conner said the requirement to collect and publish local data must come from the state, which she says is best suited for defining perimeters, instead of letting counties and cities make their own decisions. .

“California is really behind the ball in making sure full data is available,” she said. “We have no data, we have no responsibility.”

The fallout from inadequate information can be seen not only in Tulare, but in nursing homes and elderly care facilities across the state. Yolo County, home of UC Davis, announced Monday that a nursing home there had an epidemic of 35 cases, including 12 staff members and one death. But he declined to name the facility, citing similar privacy concerns to Tulare County.

Sacramento and Alameda counties have also come under fire for failing to provide details on senior citizen facilities.

In contrast, Los Angeles County was publish the names of all institutions for the elderly with only one positive case confirmed since the end of March.

The lack of information frustrates family members who, in at least one instance, have unwittingly come close to spreading the virus from one senior citizen facility to another.

A few weeks ago, a woman named Marcia was hoping to reunite her two elderly parents, both with Alzheimer’s disease who lived in separate facilities because they needed different levels of care. Marcia’s plan, who requested that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, was to move her father from the Alameda care center in Burbank to the Jewish home in Reseda, where her mother lived.

Marcia was unaware that an outbreak had occurred at the Alameda Care Center – it happened before LA County started publishing information about infections in nursing homes.

Fortunately, a nurse in Burbank told a nurse at the Jewish home because they were friends. The facility quarantined and tested Marcia’s father based on the unofficial advice.

“We were lucky,” said Dr Noah Marco, chief medical officer of the Jewish Home.

Marcia’s father was less fortunate. He developed the telltale symptoms of COVID-19. Four days later he died, never seeing his wife.

In recent days, Newsom has recognized the need for greater clarity and access to the data used to make decisions.

“Naturally, people are hungry for real-time transparency,” he said in an online briefing. “Every day we are [working] as fast as we can.

It’s not just the public that is sometimes left out.

On April 7, Newsom announced that California had secured a monthly supply of 200 million N95 respiratory and surgical masks to help protect healthcare workers. The governor did not announce the supply during his daily press briefings, but on “The Rachel Maddow Show”. This surprised some lawmakers, as they are expected to authorize the purchase within days.

“Under normal circumstances, the legislature would have had more time to deliberate on an expenditure of this magnitude,” wrote Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, in a letter to Newsom la last week, asking for more clarity on the terms of the deal.

Mitchell later said in an interview that she supported Newsom’s decision and understood the need for speed. But in the letter, she called on the state to immediately set up a public website to document its inventory of protective gear and where it is distributed to ensure supplies end up where they are needed most.

On Tuesday, Frank Girardot, a spokesperson for BYD, the company that would supply the masks, said he hoped the quality testing required for federal certifications would be completed by the end of the month, and the shipment could then start.

The state has yet to respond to The Times’ request for public registration of the contract. It also did not respond to numerous other requests for documents, including a request for information on PPE that the state requested and received from the federal government.

For government agencies, sharing information is fraught with challenges, in part because of the time it takes to collect the data, said Dr Paul Simon, Los Angeles County scientific director for public health. The lack of unified systems is also a problem at national and local levels.

“We don’t have this one massive information system that allows us to share information electronically at any time, unfortunately,” Simon said.

Last month, the League of California Cities sent a letter to Newsom requesting a postponement of action by the state’s public archives because “the city’s resources and personnel are depleted” during the outbreak.

“Depending on the length of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities may not be able to physically access some files due to office closures, limited staff, or limited IT capacity until such time. that they be allowed to return to city offices, ”said Corrie Manning, general counsel for the league, which represents nearly 500 cities across the state.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about the league’s request.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said he agrees that pandemic records are vital information that should be released, “these are not the only records that matter.”

“There are so many opportunities in a crisis like this for government officials to abuse their powers when not everyone is watching the ball,” Snyder said.

Despite the enormous stress of the pandemic, public health officials still have the obligation – and the need – to provide information, said Jackson, the public health official under Schwarzenegger.

“The fastest way to lose your credibility is to give incorrect information,” he said. “The second fastest way would be to not give out any information.”

Times editor Melanie Mason contributed to this report.

Bernard P. Love