Communities may be getting a mixed message from the state, with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders saying local boards of health could release such information shortly after the Department of Public Health asked them not to.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which only releases the number of people who have contracted or died from a disease by county, has asked cities and towns to stop releasing the number of cases of the coronavirus in their communities.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began in Massachusetts in early March, cities and towns across the state have decided to release the number of residents who have tested positive in their communities. Some municipalities send press releases any time they are notified of new cases, a handful of town officials are posting such numbers on their official Facebook pages and other communities are updating their websites daily to reflect the number of cases in town.
Following the Department of Public Health’s recommendation on Friday, some cities and towns say they will take the advice and no longer be releasing how many residents have COVID-19 in their communities.
But others say they will continue to release the numbers and not suddenly stop after doing so for the past few weeks.
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Easton, which was first sending out press releases when the town was notified of new cases, is one of the towns now updating its website daily with the number of cases in town. The total is updated by 6 p.m. each day and will continue to be updated, officials said. The town had 21 cases as of Friday evening.
“We have no plans to change course at this time,” said Town Administrator Connor Read.
John McGarry, the interim executive health officer in Brockton, has been providing The Enterprise with a daily count each afternoon when requested. He said the Department of Public Health is recommending against releasing the number of cases, but not prohibiting it, and on Friday afternoon provided that Brockton was up to 65 cases.
A Department of Public Health spokesperson said Friday evening that the agency only provides cases and deaths by county “in order to protect privacy and confidentiality of individuals who test positive for COVID-19.”
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The spokesperson said the recommendation given to local boards of health does not prohibit them from releasing the number of cases in their communities.
“We understand that many boards of health find value in sharing community-specific data as part of a risk communication plan and to keep the public informed about the scope of the local public health effort,” the recommendation states. “If you choose to share numbers of cases or deaths for these purposes, please do so with the highest regard for privacy and confidentiality by not including any information other than the case count.”
But officials in several cities and towns say they were under the impression that the Department of Public Health asked them specifically not to release the number of cases in their communities. Many of those officials say that information came on a conference call Friday morning with state officials.
“The Town of Whitman is following the current guidance of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health asking towns not to release the number of positive COVID-19 cases in respective communities,” said Whitman Emergency Management Director and Fire Chief Timothy Grenno.
The Hanson Board of Health, which had posted an announcement to the town’s website on Thursday stating that two residents tested positive for the coronavirus, has since removed the post.
On Friday morning, during a press conference at Government Center in Fall River, Director of Health and Human Services Tess Curran also stated she was asked not to release the number of cases in the city.
“I received direction from the Department of Public Health today that individual cities should not be releasing any case count numbers,” she said. “So at this point in time, we’ll be relying on the state to provide information on countywide data.”
A post on the Weymouth town website’s “COVID-19 Information” page, highlighted in red letters, states: “The Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services and Department of Public Health have asked that towns not post the number of cases in each community. They are concerned about privacy rights as well as cyber and other bullying.”
But communities may be getting a mixed message from the state.
After communities received the recommendation from the Department of Public Health on Friday morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said late Friday morning that local boards of health can release such data.
“I take the concern of communities thinking that they want to know. But if you share that kind of health information status about an individual, you also want to ensure that they are also safe and protected from bullying and the like and being spotted by someone,” Sutters said during Gov. Charlie Baker’s press briefing at the State House. “It is a very constant conversation that we’re having. It’s one thing in Boston, but if you lived in a community of like several hundred people, does that person want to be identified? There would be nothing to preclude a local board of health from saying, ‘We have 15 positive cases,’ in their community.”
A reporter then asked Sudders to clarify whether the information could be released at the city or town level.
“So a municipal board of health could make that public?” the reporter asked.
“Yup,” said Sudders, who is heading the state’s coronavirus command center.
While Sudders twice recently said that one of the main reasons the Department of Public Health only provides information on a county level is to prevent potential cyberbullying if a person is identified, the department has denied releasing similar information in the past for other reasons.
The Department of Public Health, in denying The Enterprise a town-by-town breakdown of those who contracted the mosquito-borne Eastern equine encephalitis virus last year, maintained that a person’s town of residence is “undeniably medical information exempt from disclosure” that, if released, “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
The department cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule as its standard for “de-identification” of personal information.
The state supervisor of records has questioned the department’s use of that standard, saying it is “uncertain how disclosing the names of towns would lead to the identification of the individuals affected” and The Enterprise continues to appeal the Department of Public Health’s multiple denials.
Attorney Jeffrey J. Pyle, a partner at Boston-based Prince Lobel who specializes in media law and First Amendment cases, previously called the Department of Public Health’s use of the exemption “mystifying” and “a real abuse of that exemption.” He’s said the department should have to release the cities and towns of victims.
Even after the Department of Public Health made its recommendation on Friday regarding those who contract COVID-19, several local cities and towns released updated information about the numbers of cases in their communities on Friday afternoon or evening, well after receiving the notice from the state.
Despite publicly announcing the state’s desire that cases no longer be released by cities and towns on Friday morning, Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan posted updated numbers on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.
“Middleborough now has 12 confirmed cases,” Town Manager Robert Nunes posted on his official Facebook page Saturday morning.
In Randolph, the town has been updating its website daily to inform residents of the number of cases of the coronavirus.
“Randolph has 23 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of 4:30pm up from 13 confirmed cases yesterday,” the post from Friday afternoon reads. “This will be updated daily on the Town website under Covid-19 Updates.”
Hanover, which has nine cases as of Saturday morning, and Norwell, which had five cases as of Friday afternoon, also both continue to update numbers daily on their town websites.
Senior reporter Cody Shepard can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @cshepard_ENT.