Our Opinion: MSDH needs to release LTC information

By EDITORIAL STAFF,

Last week, The Pine Belt NEWS filed a lawsuit demanding the Mississippi State Department of Health to release the names of the Forrest County long-term care facilities where 12 clients have died due to the Covid-19 illness.

The suit, filed in Hinds County by Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence, comes after the newspaper made numerous attempts to obtain the information through traditional means. (For full disclosure, the Pine Belt NEWS and The Newton County Appeal are both owned by Emmerich Newspapers.)

Publisher David Gustafson said in their story about the lawsuit that the names of these facilities is not private information protected by state law, and MSDH has provided no legal grounds why they have denied the request.

“Officials from more than 30 state governments across this country have realized that the public has a right to know where these outbreaks are occurring and they have released the same information that we are requesting,” he said. “It’s a matter of public safety and there is no existing Mississippi law that justifies keeping the information secret. The public has a right to know what’s being done to protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

We agree that this information is something the public has a right to know. In Newton County, we have been very fortunate to only have two cases as of May 17 in our LTC facilities, according to MSDH’s website, and both cases are not believed to be active at this time.

We applaud the diligence of our healthcare workers to protect these patients who are one of the most sensitive groups to the novel coronavirus.

That being said, we still believe that the public would have a right to know which facilities in our county or around the state have reported deaths from the coronavirus. We understand that we have to follow regulations set for by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA. But we believe the privacy of the affected individuals can still be protected even though the names of the facilities are released.

Family members deserve to know whether their loved ones are at risk of contracting the coronavirus so that they can ask the questions to make sure they are protected as much as possible. LTC nationwide have been susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks. In our state, nearly 1,500 cases have been reported with currently 98 active cases. Unfortunately, we have had 254 deaths in LTCs.

We hate that a fellow news organization had to file suit to get this information, but it is important for the public to have access to this information. And family members need to know what the risk is for their loved ones and how safe they will be.