As concerns deepened about the alarming spread of the novel coronavirus, it has been heartening how quickly officials and institutions have ramped up efforts to contain it, at least at the state and local level. In this area, school officials have been out front, as ConVal led SAU 29 and other area districts in shutting down schools before the statewide school-closing order came. Similarly early steps were taken by the higher education institutions in this region, and prompt initiatives in Keene under Mayor George Hansel and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon have also impressed.
The state’s response has also been assertive, as Gov. Chris Sununu has mobilized state resources and implemented steps to address the public health crisis and the economic hardship it’s causing. Equally importantly, he’s been visible and accessible, demonstrated command of the issues and conveyed confidence in the state’s response. Also demonstrating crisis-management competence has been Vermont’s Gov. Phil Scott, with that state being in certain respects even more proactive than New Hampshire. That’s important not only to Vermont residents, but also to those on this side of the Connecticut River for whom cross-border cooperation in efforts to contain the virus’s spread is critical.
Despite the generally impressive New Hampshire and Vermont mobilization, however, we have concerns about a disturbing tendency of health officials of each state to release incomplete information about coronavirus cases in a way that only heightens public concern. This past week, Keene State College announced that one of its professors has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and on Thursday another local employer, the Granite Group plumbing supply company, disclosed that it had shut its branch in Keene after learning that one of its employees there has also tested positive. These cases are clearly very concerning to folks in Keene and the area. Yet, according to the website for “all information” on the virus in New Hampshire operated by the state’s Joint Information Center, there were no reported cases in Cheshire County until late Friday afternoon. When we sought clarification, the JIC informed us the most up-to-date information was on the website and that it couldn’t confirm whether either of the cases was among the 44 it was then reporting for the state (that number, as of late Friday, had grown to 55). It’s possible the reason is based on the location of each person’s residence. We know that the Keene State professor lives in Massachusetts — though only because the college reported that. As for the Granite Group employee, the public was, for too long, left to speculate.
Too often, the fallback position of state officials is HIPAA — the acronym for the federal law protecting electronic patient information. In following up on the state report Wednesday of three new cases in Hillsborough County, we sought clarification of the towns in which the infected individuals reside — or at least whether they lived in the eastern or western part of the county — knowing this is important to residents and officials of Peterborough and other towns on this side of Temple Mountain. The next day, the Vermont Health Department reported a positive result for a Vermont resident tested at “another state’s lab,” and we asked which county that person lives in, given the information’s potential relevance to those living on each side of the Connecticut River. In each case, we were informed no additional information could be released in order to protect patient privacy. Presumably the HIPAA concern is to not release information that might identify individuals. Yet, New Hampshire is reporting positive test results specifically for Nashua, and Vermont is disclosing the county of residence for other cases. That saying which half of Hillsborough County a case was in would too-closely identify the patient lacks credibility.
We have a great deal of sympathy for the monumental task facing state officials in keeping the public informed at a time of fast-moving developments. But local officials, as well as the public, are concerned about the incomplete transparency in the reporting of these cases. Shockingly, when we asked Kurt Blomquist, Keene’s emergency management director, whether, without a specific name or address, he would be informed if a Keene resident had tested positive, he said he was flatly told by the state that only countywide information would be released.
In the interest of keeping an anxious public and local officials fully informed, we urge New Hampshire and Vermont officials to begin releasing all coronavirus information that no reasonable person would think can identify a specific patient. If the employers in the two Keene-related cases weren’t constrained by privacy laws from disclosing important information for the public good, certainly public officials and residents here deserve as much from the state. As one reader emailed us when expressing concern that the lack of transparency risked creating a false sense of security, “How do we ‘trust’ what we are hearing when it’s an incomplete picture of what is really happening?”