Just when you think most officials are doing their best to keep the public informed during this pandemic, the state department that should be leading the day throws cold water on the idea.
The Mass. Department of Public Health has asked hospitals in the state not to disclose how many of their patients are waiting for coronavirus test results, or the results of the patients the hospitals have seen. This news, reported by the Boston Business Journal, looks like government overreach, even if it is a request, not a mandate.
DPH is the same department that has been part of almost daily briefings by Gov. Charlie Baker and has posted 4 p.m. updates on its website of the county by county numbers of positive tests and deaths in Massachusetts. It makes sense that the most reliable numbers reported daily should come from the DPH and be posted on the department’s website at 4 p.m., as has been the practice.
But it’s a mystery why DPH should ask hospitals to keep a lid on it, without some kind of explanation. The Business Journal said it could not get a response from the DPH spokesperson about why the request was made to hospitals. But some hospital officials said they were ignoring it anyway.
Dr. Eric Dickson, CEO of UMass Medical Health Care, told the Business Journal, “I don’t think there’s any benefit to keeping any of this a secret. There are still not enough people saying look, this is real.”
The problem, as reported by our newspapers and media outlets across the state, has been that there are too few test kits available in too few places for too many who need to be tested. Whether the blame for this shortage falls on state health officials or elsewhere, the lack of preparedness still has to be acknowledged and dealt with. If the public is kept up to date about the increase — or decrease — in the number of positive cases and deaths from COVID-19, and has knowledge about where cases of the virus have hit hardest, they can better understand the seriousness of this pandemic.
The governor can issue recommendations, health officials and local government officials can repeat the calls to wash your hands, stay indoors and help “flatten the curve.” But it’s the hard numbers, reported daily, that give residents confidence this crisis is being addressed, even if the pandemic continues to grow.
The Business Journal said hundreds of tests remain in the pipeline. For example, UMass Memorial in Worcester had sent 450 tests to labs as of last Thursday, with only 150 of those back with results.
Baker and state health officials who take their turns at the microphone each day have tried to put the rising toll in context by emphasizing that the number of positive test results is partly a result of more people being tested. And a rise in deaths from COVID-19 is the unfortunate result of the virus going through an incubation period and approaching a critical point where people are getting sick and dying.
MITRE, a nonprofit cited by the Business Journal, said in a report this week the number of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. “significantly underrepresent the actual number of active domestic COVID-19 infections,” in large part because of limited testing and the “multi-day period of asymptomatic infectivity associated with” the virus. In other words, there aren’t enough tests being done and there is a lag time between when a person might get the virus and actually show symptoms and be tested.
If DPH officials have a reason for pressuring hospitals to not release information, that needs to be explained, in public. The public should have access to as much information – even if it’s numbers about COVID-19 swabs taken, sent off to a lab and not yet returned – to be kept fully aware of where we all stand as this pandemic progresses and moves on.