Data for foodborne and other reportable diseases in Oregon might take on more clarity if Senate Bill 719 ever gets moving. Time is still on its side, with the Oregon Legislature not scheduled to adjourn until June 30.  But, progress is slow.

The Senate Committee on Health Care produced and engrossed an amended version of SB 719 on April 23. After a public hearing and a work session, the committee gave the amended version a “do pass” recommendation.   

But instead of sending the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, Senate President Peter Courtney put up a detour, sending SB 719 to the Ways and Means Committee.

The amended bill draws a tighter line than did the original by continuing to make investigations of reportable diseases exempt from public disclosure while saying the public health administrator “shall release aggregate information that does not disclose the identity of any individual.’ 

Murky COVID-19 reporting by Oregon Health is the reason for the bill.

However, it covers investigations of all reportable foodborne diseases.

Reportable foodborne diseases include infections of Salmonella, Shiga-toxin-producing Escherichia coli(STEC, including O157 and other serogroups), Listeria, Shigella, Vibrio, and hepatitis A virus, as well as botulism poisoning.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those are reportable almost everywhere in the United States.

Infection with other pathogens and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) may also be reportable.

Oregon physicians and other health care providers by law must report these diseases and conditions to local health departments.

If SB 719 passes, it becomes law in Oregon immediately. Non-state researchers will obtain access to data sets that do not contain identifying information about individuals.

SB 719 has stirred up enough interest that it has existed outside of the regular deadlines and cutoffs that kill most bills. Most bills not clearing their house of origin in Oregon were declared dead by mid-March.

In  testimony in favor of the bill, Tom Holt, representing the Society of Professional Journalists, says it will “remove excuses too often used to deny access to high-level data of great public interest.”

Holt says OHA routinely denies requests for the “rolled up, aggregated statistics” used to make policy decisions around the state’s COVID response. OHA does release information in forms of its choosing “to service its communications strategy.”

Oregon news media often finds OHA information graphics contain errors, but the agency will neither admit mistakes nor provide any way to check its work.

Holt says these instances are not isolated cases and go beyond any “misreading of the law.”

The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, which has given Oregon an “A” in the overall assessment, has also cited OHA for its “refusal to transparently provide aggregate data used to provide visuals and arguments about public health interventions is also troubling.”

Erin Kissane, the co-founder of the tracking project and a resident of Astoria, OR, said OHA recently reported a 50 percent increase for vaccines for seniors in the Portland area, which was in reality about 19 percent.

Oregon’s Progressive and Independent Parties have endorsed SB 719. It cited the need to check OHA’s work related to re-opening businesses that were closed during the pandemic and to access data on COVID deaths.

Reporting enables appropriate public health follow-up for patients, helps identify outbreaks, and provides a better understanding of Oregon morbidity patterns. Oregon law allows limited release of information obtained during a reportable disease investigation to individuals who have been exposed or if release is necessary to avoid immediate danger to an individual or the public. Reportable disease investigation information is otherwise exempt from public records disclosure.

The amended bill, now assigned to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, might be taken up against as early as Friday.

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