Changes in Oklahoma State Reporting Could Skew Coronavirus Data

The announcement that data broken down to the zip code and city levels would no longer be available was met with many questions and demands, as well as skepticism, on social media. Legal opinions and solutions are being sought.

by Sheri Gourd, Tahlequah Daily Press, Okla. / June 2, 2020
TNS
(TNS) - While the number of COVID-19 cases in Cherokee County has stayed under 30, the Oklahoma State Department of Health has changed how it reports on its website.

As of May 31, OSDH "will no longer be able to publish COVID-19 data by city, zip code, or by long-term care and nursing home facility due to the expiration of the State's Catastrophic Emergency Declaration."

The Catastrophic Health Emergency, approved by the Legislature on April 7, allowed Gov. Kevin Stitt to effectively waive confidentiality provisions of state law found in 63 OS 1-502.2, according to Rob Crissinger, OSDH communications manager.

"With the expiration of the CHE on May 31, however, the confidentiality provisions were reinstated, which means OSDH can no longer report city or zip code-level data, or data for counties smaller than 20,000," said Crissinger.

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act law allows disclosure if permitted by state law, and Crissinger said the Oklahoma Legislature attempted to fix this by amending 1-502.2 to permit disclosures permitted by HIPAA with the passage of House Bill 2938.

"Attorneys have determined the language didn't go far enough because it left in place the portion of state law that requires individuals to be offered an individual proceeding under the Admin Procedures Act prior to disclosure," said Crissinger. "This means more than 5,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to date would need to pursue this proceeding to allow their positive tests to be registered in city or zip-code level data. We would need 100-percent participation in order for the data to be accurately reflected at more granular levels, and we'd need continued participation in this proceeding moving forward for future cases."

The announcement that data broken down to the zip code and city levels would no longer be available was met with many questions and demands, as well as skepticism, on social media.
"Please show all data by county, regardless of population. Anything but complete transparency creates distrust and suspicion," said Tahlequah resident Beth Green Nagle on the OSDH Facebook post.

OSDH announced that legal opinions and solutions are being sought.
"We are researching whether there are possible legal interpretation solutions to the issue, as requested by the governor and as clearly desired by the Legislature's intent with HB2938, to reinstate levels of COVID-19 data reporting that the state views as critical for the public and local elected officials when making public health decisions during this pandemic," said Crissinger.

Another data set that will not be reported regularly comes from the ongoing testing at long-term care facilities.

"This information is vital to keep family members informed of possible exposure and to allow them to make fully informed decisions about the care of their loved ones," said AARP Oklahoma State President Joe Ann Vermillion. "While AARP Oklahoma researches remedies to this situation, we hope the Oklahoma State Department of Health will reverse course and continue to report this life-saving data. In the meantime, we urge all long-term care facilities to do the right thing and continue to voluntarily disclose this information to all residents and their caregivers."

In mid-April, Stitt tasked OSDH to test staff and residents in all Oklahoma nursing homes. It was to be completed by May 31, but only 45 counties were listed on the May 28 report. Cherokee and Adair counties were included in that report.

OSDH reported that since the CED went into effect, the number of Oklahomans in the hospital for COVID-19 has declined by roughly 65 percent; the weekly rate of deaths related to COVID-19 has declined by 56 percent; and the percentage of positive cases has declined to 3.7 percent.

The state will continue to publish state and county numbers daily, as well as the governor's daily Executive Order Report and the Weekly Epidemiology Report, on coronavirus.health.ok.gov.
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©2020 the Tahlequah Daily Press (Tahlequah, Okla.)
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