– By Josh Durso
Let the data be public … or maybe not.
This week, Seneca joined the growing list of county health departments releasing COVID-19 data by township.
Cayuga, Monroe, Ontario, and Steuben counties all began releasing confirmed cases and number of those in isolation by town. It’s a move that was first considered controversial, but as more communities jumped on-board – comfort was developed.
Several emails over the last week from readers have posed the following question: “Why is Wayne County not releasing geographic COVID data?”
We posed that question to Wayne County Public Health Educator Ryan Mulhern, who responded via email.
“We are not providing that information at this time for several reasons,” Mulhern began. “We are certainly aware of some public interest in receiving information specifically regarding which towns positive cases are from, as well as other counties providing that data. We are thankful to have county leadership who have been understanding and supportive of our expert opinion and stance on township data, rather than overruling our efforts, as has been the case for other county health departments that provide the data you are referring to.”
Mulhern’s assertion somewhat matches the sentiment that came out of communities like Seneca, which did not release town-by-town data until supervisors began pressuring for it to be released regularly.
However, other counties – like Ontario and Steuben began releasing town-by-town data before political pressure could be applied.
“It is our understanding that some members of the public fear that positive cases in their towns would increase their risk, and that knowing where cases reside would either ease their worry or increase their precautions. We are also aware that some local health departments are making this information available in a map style format,” Mulhern continued. “We as a department feel strongly that there is no discernable advantage to this information being made available to residents at this time for several reasons.”
He says health departments are responsible for reporting cases of residents within their county, but not specifically if the positive case is physically in their county at this time. “Meaning, some positive cases are not physically in county at this time either for treatment reasons or otherwise, but would be listed under our number of positive cases when we provide an update. Furthermore, it is apparent to us that if we were to release town-by-town demographics it would dangerously undermine our consistent educational messaging, which from the start is and always has been: ‘Stay home. Practice Social Distancing. No matter where you live’,” Mulhern added.
He said that the department feared that town-by-town information could potentially convey to some residents that towns without cases are somehow ‘safer’ than those who have confirmed cases. In particular, the department fears loosening of precautionary steps being taken to slow the spread of the virus. “We need all residents to treat the whole county as if COVID-19 cases are present, most likely because they are. The highest levels of precautions should be the standard, not situational,” Mulhern explained.
Another major reason for Wayne County Public Health’s decision was misinformation.
“With the ability for misinformation and speculation to spread quickly through social media and other channels, our concerns include the possibility that residents may begin to ‘report’ or ‘out’ their neighbors who simply have seasonal allergies or colds, adding to the panic, misinformation, and rumors that we are already working diligently to dispel,” he said. “We feel strongly that we should avoid leaving ‘connectable dots’ for members of the community who may stigmatize this illness and the individuals who are experiencing it. We take the utmost care in protecting the privacy of our residents while also providing the information needed for all residents to protect themselves. Our message has and remains that we are ‘One Wayne County’ and our efforts and precautions must persist as such, regardless of township.”
Mulhern says the bottom line is that the virus “isn’t close, it’s here,” and that’s what residents need to remember.