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Time for transparency on COVID-19 hotbeds

During a global pandemic, we tread lightly with criticism of public health professionals, who’ve served admirably and, in many cases, heroically while guiding society through the challenge of our lifetimes.

Yet, we can’t leave unchecked a recent lack of transparency that has stoked unnecessary fear and confusion in Isle of Wight County.

When the county’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in a day last week, making Isle of Wight one of Virginia’s hardest-hit localities on a per-capita basis, the Western Tidewater Health District refused to provide critically important context: that the spike was at least partly caused by an outbreak at a single long-term care facility.

Tenacious reporting by the Smithfield Times’ Stephen Faleski uncovered the outbreak at Windsor’s Consulate Health Care, whose director acknowledged confirmed COVID-19 cases in a letter to residents and their families. Yet, at this writing, the cause of Isle of Wight’s spike still has not been explained by the public health officials who revealed the surge to start with.

Isle of Wight’s case total made it late last week the seventh-highest per capita among more than 120 localities — a concerning statistic even if WTHD had been transparent about the reason. But without any explanation at all, the surge in cases was downright alarming for a populace already on edge.

In their defense, WTHD officials seem to be following the guidance of the Virginia Department of Health, which has opined that identifying facilities with outbreaks would violate privacy rights. That argument insults even average intelligence. No one, including this newspaper, is asking for the names of COVID-19 victims, who indeed have a right to privacy.

But revealing that a certain number of cases occurred in a particular place violates nobody’s privacy and unquestionably serves the public’s interest in a pandemic like this one. Certainly, citizens’ right to know trumps any concern about embarrassment for the facility where an outbreak occurs.

WTHD Director Dr. Todd Wagner defended the secrecy on the grounds that revealing names of outbreak locations “would greatly erode the necessary trust between those facilities and the local health departments to allow for them to confidently and securely report any issue or situation.”

We say that any facility of any kind that refused to report such information to the health department in order to protect its reputation would deserve the severest of punishments. Confidentiality shouldn’t be a bargaining chip for full disclosure of data that could save lives.

It’s important to remember that an outbreak of a highly contagious virus in a long-term care setting does not necessarily mean the facility did anything wrong. Nursing home residents are at high risk for COVID-19, which is especially cruel when attacking elderly people with underlying health conditions.

Covering up an outbreak, however, would be borderline criminal if a facility attempted it.

If simply having an outbreak reflects poorly on a senior living community, as health officials have inferred through their secrecy, then the Western Tidewater Health District has done a huge disservice to every such facility in Suffolk, Isle of Wight County, Southampton County and Franklin by revealing how many have had outbreaks but not saying which ones. Administrators at facilities without any COVID-19 cases have to be livid to be covered by that cloud of suspicion.

Virginia needs to follow the lead of other states and be fully transparent about the locations of major outbreaks, whether in workplaces or long-term care facilities. As one frustrated reader told the Smithfield Times last week, “there is no good reason they cannot identify these facilities, and an organization supposedly dedicated to the public health is certainly not fulfilling that obligation by not warning the citizens of this county where these major infections are.”