Newspaper sues health dept.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, the Mississippi State Department of Health is getting sued and health care will change forever.
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs stood outside the Family Health Center in Laurel Wednesday afternoon to speak with media and South Central Regional Medical Center employees, noting Mississippi’s reported case numbers are in constant flux. Jones and Jasper counties — the whole Pine Belt — have become noteworthy for their spiking cases.
Some residents have attributed those spikes to proven hotbeds: enclosed spaces where people are in close contact for extended periods, like senior care facilities and other similar homes.
Officials at Ellisville State School, which houses students who have developmental disabilities, declined to say whether its campus is experiencing an outbreak. Public relations director Jennifer Boswell wrote in an email that employees reporting to work are following Mississippi State Health Department guidelines — but there was little clarification about its student body.
“Positive cases have been confirmed at Department of Mental Health programs,” she wrote. “However, the Mississippi State Department of Health currently is not identifying long-term care facilities or confirmed numbers at these facilities in light of privacy considerations and stigmatization of the facilities and employees. DMH is following that guidance.”
Identifying information about individuals was not requested, but the school’s case count was. Liz Charlot of the MSDH clarified that the school does not have to give out that information. She said the department never identifies schools, facilities or businesses unless there is a public health reason to do so.
The Pine Belt News, a Hattiesburg newspaper, sued the MSDH to learn the names of Forrest County long-term care facilities where 12 patients died from COVID-19 complications.
“Officials from more than 30 state governments across this country have realized that the public has a right to know where these outbreaks are occurring and they have released the same information that we are requesting,” publisher David Gustafson said. “It’s a matter of public safety, and there is no existing Mississippi law that justifies keeping the information secret. The public has a right to know what’s being done to protect our most vulnerable citizens.”
The suit was filed in Hinds County by Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence after the paper reportedly tried multiple times to get the information. No legal grounds have been provided for denying access to case counts at care facilities, like Ellisville State School, and MSDH has said these places are “high-risk locations.”
Long-term care facilities, according to the department, include “nursing homes, intermediate care facilities with intellectual disabilities, personal care homes, assisted living facilities, long-term acute facilities and psychiatric or chemical dependency residential treatment centers.” That information can be seen on the COVID-19 page of the MSDH website.
Dobbs told media Wednesday that COVID-19 “isn’t going anywhere.”
“We have annual tabletop drills for pandemics, and we’ve dealt with things like Ebola, H1N1 … We have these periodic health crises, but this is the biggest one we’ve seen so far,” he said. “The resource constraints, personal protective equipment, ventilators, those things are extremely difficult to manage, and public health was hobbled by the pressure to work on those things solely. That was stressful, to respond to people clamoring for things they need, and it’s not there.”
But as hospitals resume regular services, Dobbs is feeling more hopeful.
“It’s nice to be able to focus on outbreaks, testing, policies and protecting communities as much as possible,” he said.
Dobbs is confident that health care will be wholly different on the other side of the pandemic.
“We learned how to use telehealth, telemedicine in a way we haven’t before,” he said. “I think it’s going to drive innovation, especially access to telehealth from the home setting, where there’s been a lot of federal regulation.”
If state residents can follow safety measures, Dobbs said, disease transmission can be mitigated to a point.
“The spread of coronavirus is not any better or worse than it was a month ago,” he said.