Massachusetts Shifts Course, Releases Town-by-Town Coronavirus Numbers

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The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is reversing course on releasing town-by-town coronavirus numbers – but plans to do so only once a week.

The state’s secretary of health and human services, Marylou Sudders, announced the change during a press conference Wednesday, at the end of a nine-minute presentation.

“For the first time starting today, we will release nova coronavirus cases by cities and towns, as the state takes additional steps to assess and report the burden of infection across the state,” Sudders said. “This new reporting, which will be updated weekly each Wednesday, marks the latest in the series of new data points and information that we recently made publicly available, in addition to the data on the daily covid-19 dashboard.”

The numbers show that six of the state’s 351 cities and towns have reported a rate of coronavirus higher than 900 per 100,000, or 0.9 percent. They are Brockton, Randolph, Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence, and Williamstown.

Making local data public will help public officials combat coronavirus, she said.

“Having the ability to look at this virus through the lens of its impact on specific cities and towns will help us identify potential hotspots, inform the public health response, assist cities and towns working to slow the spread, and help the state appropriately deploy resources,” Sudders said.

She said she would not commit to making data public going backward from today. She did not explain why the local numbers would be reported only once a week.

The state’s public health agency has previously reported coronavirus cases only on a county basis. Sudders has previously justified withholding town-by-town numbers by describing cases of online harassment of coronavirus patients in small towns where their names became publicly known.

She said the state will continue to withhold numbers if small and medium-size communities don’t have many cases.

“As is standard public health practice, we will not release the number of positive cases if there are fewer than five in a municipality of 50,000 or less, in order to protect privacy,” Sudders said.

Sudders was asked by a reporter what changed to account for the change in policy from withholding town-by-town coronavirus numbers to reporting them.

“So, again, you know, ah, public health folks are always trying to balance privacy and release of data, and clearly we have so many cases in Massachusetts, that as long as we stay true to sort of  the principle of not less than five in a municipality of 50, that this is important data to share to the public, particularly to identify hotspots and the like. And we have always been sharing the data with local municipalities. Local municipalities have always had the opportunity and the right to share that data with their communities,” Sudders said.

Some local health officials stopped providing coronavirus numbers in their city or town after getting guidance from the state’s public health agency that they interpreted as meaning they shouldn’t release the data.

The state Department of Public Health on Wednesday, April 15 reported 29,918 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts, with 1,108 deaths. Almost 48 percent – 530 — of the total number of deaths have taken place in long-term care facilities.

The town-by-town breakdown of coronavirus numbers and rates released by the Massachusetts  Department of Public Health on Wednesday, April 15 is below.