Editorial: Lack of transparency by state government remains an urgent issue

3 min read286 views and 66 shares Posted April 2, 2020

Last week, LebTown published a rare editorial.

We urged Gov. Tom Wolf in the strongest possible terms that he should make public the internal guidelines used to evaluate “waiver requests” from businesses seeking to operate despite a statewide shutdown of non-life sustaining businesses. We also requested the list of currently waived businesses.

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That request still stands, unfortunately, with the situation becoming even murkier this week, as reporting by Spotlight PA suggests that maybe the waivers don’t mean anything at all. And now any waiver requests must be submitted by the end of the week.

See the most recent list of business types that may continue operations here.

Furthermore, the state has said that it won’t process any Right-to-Know requests until its buildings reopen.

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This nonsense must stop immediately. The state government, and specifically the Department of Community and Economic Development, is introducing real harm on our communities by its lack of transparency about which businesses were waived and for what reasons. The fact of the matter is that unnamed, unidentified, unmonitored bureaucrats are picking winners and losers and making decisions that will have life-altering consequences for business owners and employees across the state.

These past few weeks my inbox has been a sobering place. I have heard from business owners wanting to operate, yes. But I have also heard from employees scared out of their minds, crying for an answer to the question, “Why am I here? Why am I essential?”

Without transparency on these issues, economic anxiety and skepticism about the official response will continue to fester, while the public has no mechanism to know which businesses are operating and under what pretense of coronavirus contingencies.

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There is another issue we need to discuss.

The Department of Health and Dr. Rachel Levine deserve praise generally for a level-headed and science-based response to the pandemic. But reporters, healthcare administrators, and local officials are frustrated with the quality of data coming out of the state.

The state will not release municipality-level data to the public, to reporters, or even to the county government. Only if a county has its own Department of Health is it possible right now for county administrators to know which municipalities might be a hotspot for coronavirus transmission.

While it is true that we are seeing community spread across the state, it is absurd (and unscientific) of the state to argue that the spread is so significant as to make more granular data unuseful.

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Pressed on this issue, an unidentified Department of Health spokesperson told LebTown in an email, “the Disease Control and Prevention Act limits information being released to only what is necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of Pennsylvanians,” and therefore the department would not be sharing any further information than what is listed on the website currently.

LebTown questions the legal soundness of the state’s argument. It is our position that there would be no HIPAA violation in disclosing the municipality wherein a confirmed coronavirus carrier resides. Bear in mind, we are not requesting age, gender, or race; all data that other counties and states are collecting and data which epidemiologists agree is material to understanding the spread and transmission of infectious diseases.

On the topic of DOH data, there is another emergent issue which we need the state to address head-on: Why aren’t out-of-state coronavirus carriers being reflected in the official counts?

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“Cases are identified in county of residence,” said Department of Health Press Secretary Nate Wardle in an email to LebTown. “So, if someone was in a hospital in one county, but lived in another, the case would be identified by the county in which they live.”

How then would a New York resident who ends up at WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital show up in our data? They wouldn’t. To be clear, we have no first-hand knowledge that this has occurred, but social media is rampant with speculation on this point. Without data it’s anyone’s guess what the actual situation is.

I have more than once this past month heard those with data say something like, “Well, I don’t know how that (additional information) would be helpful at this point.” LebTown calls bunk on that type of decision-making. It is not up to the government to decide whether information would be helpful. The state should only be withholding information that if released would likely introduce harm.

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“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” said Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

I can’t imagine more relevant words to our current situation.


Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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