Today, the Oregon Legislative Assembly will again consider whether more sunshine might be the cure for some murky COVID-19 reporting.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and local public health administrators would be required under Senate Bill 719 to disclose aggregate data from reportable disease investigations to the public.
Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses would be among reportable disease investigations covered by the new law. The state and local health agencies would be required to make public all aggregate data without disclosing an individual’s identification.
The Oregon Senate Health Committee carried SB 719 over from its schedule last week to 1 p.m. today.
So far, 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 earlier 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 the 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 are also 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.
The Senate Committee on Health Care today is holding a work session on SB 719. The bill may have both fiscal and revenue impact, but no statements were filed ahead of today’s action.
The staff report says all Oregon physicians, other health care providers, and laboratorians are required by law to report certain diseases and conditions to local health departments.
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.
Senate Bill 719 provides that aggregate data obtained in the course of a reportable disease or disease outbreak investigation can be publicly reported if the release does not lead to the identification of an individual.
Oregon’s regular session is scheduled to continue until July 11.
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