Every once in a while, my local health department provides a rare clue as to how coronavirus is spreading in the community where I live.
“A cashier at the Popeye’s Chicken on Central Ave in Albany has recently tested positive for COVID-19,” an alert from Albany County advised the public on Friday morning. “Anyone who got takeout from the Popeye’s Chicken on Monday, March 23, between 4 and 10 p.m. or March 25 from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. should contact the health department.”
Thankfully, I’m not in the category of people who now need to get in touch with the health department because I might have come in contact with someone carrying COVID-19.
But that doesn’t mean the information put out by the county isn’t of interest, or lacks value.
Detailed information about the places people who tested positive for COVID-19 visited can help slow the spread of coronavirus by making everyone more aware of the virus’ silent advance through the area, and thus more cautious. Those who might have come in contact with an infected person will know they are at heightened risk, and take extra care to limit their activities and interactions with others.
Transparency can go a long way toward protecting the public from COVID-19.
During a pandemic, there’s value in knowing whether your neighborhood is a coronavirus hot spot, or whether there’s a cluster of infections emerging in your community.
Unfortunately, detailed information about where COVID-19 is hitting Capital Region communities the hardest is hard to come by.
We’re mostly in the dark about where the virus is — how people who tested positive were exposed to it, and where they might have spent time.
And while it’s important to protecting patient privacy, this information could be released without revealing who has the virus or where exactly they live.
Most Capital Region counties are working hard to update residents on their COVID-19 caseload, sharing information on the number of people who have tested positive, the number of people in quarantine, the number of people hospitalized and the number of people who have died, among other things.
But they could be doing even more to keep residents apprised of COVID-19’s impact on the community.
The argument against providing more detailed information to residents is that it can stigmatize communities dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks. That’s certainly a concern, but I’d argue that the way to counter it is by making it clear that the virus doesn’t discriminate.
Of greater concern is public health — and making sure outbreaks aren’t minimized or covered up by institutions stricken by COVID-19.
Last week, Kingsway Manor in Schenectady initially denied that resident of one of its assisted living facilities had died of the virus, only confirming the death after the family spoke out. That shouldn’t have happened — and with greater transparency from the county health department, perhaps it wouldn’t have.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been praised for his daily press briefings, which provide county-by-county updates on the state’s COVID-19.
I’ve appreciated these factual presentations, as many have.
But they aren’t as informative as they could be, as an article from the USA Today network makes clear.
The piece notes that “each day, some basic information is missing, and the state Health Department refuses to make it public: a death toll by county, demographics of those inflicted or who died, and even a full accounting of those who recovered.”
Many counties are providing a death toll.
What’s missing is the comprehensive picture of who’s dying that can only be provided at the state level.
Other locales do provide more information about their COVID-19 caseloads, deaths and recoveries.
An article by the news site ProPublica observes that “Residents of Los Angeles can go to a county website to look up how many confirmed coronavirus cases there are in Beverlywood, or Koreatown, or Echo Park. Officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, have released figures at the ZIP code level. The South Korean government is sending geotargeted texts to alert citizens to positive cases near them.”
These all sound like great tools for keeping the public informed.
I’d like to see New York’s counties and state health department make similar tools available to residents.
Doing so will only empower New Yorkers desperate for data about the virus that has turned the world upside down.