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Image: COMMONWEALTH MEDIA SERVICES (CUSTOM CREDIT) / COMMONWEALTH MEDIA SERVICES: NATALIE KOLB
Update: On Wednesday, the state health department began publishing online the number of people under investigation, as well as information on how many samples have tested negative, presumptive positive, confirmed positive, or are pending.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania officials are citing a 1955 law authored in the heyday of syphilis to withhold details about coronavirus cases, including how many people have been tested.
At frequent media briefings on COVID-19 over the past week, Health Secretary Rachel Levine has not provided the public with the total number of samples tested, the number of people quarantined after possible exposure, or the exact ages of infected persons.
The department has only released the number of positive cases, as well as general information about the source of the infection, whether the infected person is an adult, and which county they live in.
Most states — including neighboring New York, New Jersey, and Maryland — have released information on the number of cases tested, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis.
Levine said Tuesday the state has to balance the public’s need for information with a patient’s need for privacy.
“We’ll be continually discussing the information we release,” she said.
The state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law, passed in 1955, allows the health department to keep records and reports of contagious diseases strictly confidential, though aggregate data can be provided to researchers.
Health officials can release safeguarded information if they determine the public benefit would outweigh privacy concerns, a department spokesperson said.
“That decision is made under the guidance of the department’s public health professionals, including our public health physicians … and most often by the secretary of health herself,” spokesperson Nate Wardle said.
Officials in neighboring states have been more transparent about potential cases.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has provided numbers on how many people in the state are under “precautionary” quarantine or are in voluntary isolation. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio divulged the ages of COVID-19 patients, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. The Maryland and New Jersey health departments have also published the number of COVID-19 samples tested.
This is not the first time Pennsylvania’s health department has used the law to withhold information. It has cited the law to deny public record requests that could illuminate how the state handles food-borne bacteria outbreaks.
In 2018, the state open records office sided with the health department in withholding records on E. coli cases in Pennsylvania sought by a Morning Call reporter.
“[The law] makes confidential, with extremely limited exceptions, any records maintained by the Department … and this restriction is made expressly applicable to records relating to outbreaks and unusual diseases, infections, and conditions,” the public records office said.
The intent of the law is actually something of a mystery.
The state Supreme Court wrote in a 1988 decision that the law had little legislative history, making it difficult to interpret.
“Most of the historical record consists of little more than a public reading of the act,” the court said. “Apparently, the discussion of the act occurred almost entirely behind ‘closed doors’ or in committee, where there was little effort to produce committee reports or create a written record.”
The court decided the law’s aim was to prevent and control diseases, both contagious and not.
In 2013, reports commissioned by the state Senate recommended a complete overhaul to the archaic law. But the legislature has failed to pass any updates in the years since.
Sen. Michele Brooks (R., Mercer), the chair of the Senate’s Health Committee, said there “could be an opportunity to look at updating regulations.”
“But currently, the concentration is on containing the spread,” she said.
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