Show Us The Numbers on Coronavirus

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The Massachusetts Department of Health’s refusal to provide a town-by-town breakdown of coronavirus cases is itself a public health crisis.

And it’s not acceptable.

In a time of emergency, we need basic information that will help us assess risks and make decisions.  Does your town have a lot of cases?  Maybe you won’t go to the grocery store if you have even barely enough food at home.  Not a lot of cases?  Maybe you’ll go to the grocery store and the gas station, too.

Public officials often use the patient-privacy rules associated with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to withhold information that they should fork over.  It has become a way not just for people to protect the confidentiality of their health records, but also for government officials to avoid giving the public what they owe the public.

In this case, the state Department of Public Health is releasing coronavirus cases by county. The imprecision in these figures is laughable.

Consider, for instance, Middlesex County. It includes the towns of Ashby on the New Hampshire border and Holliston south of Framingham. It’s likely that many Ashby residents have never been to Holliston. It’s likely that many Holliston residents have never heard of Ashby. The drive between the two is more than 50 miles.

On the Cape, Falmouth is more than an-hour-and-a-half drive from Provincetown. Yet they’re both in Barnstable County.

In western Massachusetts, it would take you about an hour 40 minutes to drive from the town of Mount Washington to the town of Florida. But you’d still be in Berkshire County.

In short:  These county figures don’t help people evaluate what’s going on where they live.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, justifies this secrecy as a means to prevent people from being bullied online because they have tested positive for coronavirus.

The proper reaction to someone with a disease is compassion. It’s unfortunate that some people would react with less than compassion. But no one is asking public officials to name names publicly. We want numbers.

If some people in certain small communities can figure out from numbers who has coronavirus, and if some of those people treat such victims badly, that is regrettable.

But it doesn’t justify withholding from all of us vital information that helps us make decisions we need to make.

And that’s the point.  Public health officials work for the people. Their advice is welcome, and their directives may be followed, if they are constitutional, otherwise legal, and make sense.

But they are not the ultimate decision makers. We the people are.