A street scene of Watonga, population under 5,000. (Courtesy Watonga Republican)

Weeks after mayors and other local officials asked the Oklahoma State Department of Health to release COVID-19 infections and deaths by city, the state began publishing some of that information this week.

The catch? The city breakdown excluded cities with 10,000 or fewer people. Health officials included those small cities and towns in an “other” category, with only a total number that represented one-third of the positive COVID-19 cases and deaths statewide.

Officials in smaller cities said that didn’t help their communities, especially as rumors of the virus infection rate abound on social media.

“I think it’s better to always know facts as opposed to worrying about what could be,” said Clinton Mayor David Berrong, whose city’s population is about 9,300. “I think it would make people more comfortable to know what’s going on in their community and it doesn’t seem right to strip that from people just because they live in a smaller community.”

On Friday, the health department reversed course. It said it would release all city and ZIP-code level data, likely over the weekend or the beginning of next week.

The change came after news organizations, including Oklahoma Watch, had pressed the agency for more information about the outbreak.

Oklahoma Watch has made several requests for city and ZIP-code level infection and death data since March 20, with the latest open records request filed this week. Health officials at first said federal and state health privacy laws prohibited release of that data. The publication made inquiries about the city-level data again on Friday.

In addition, earlier this week The Oklahoman published a list of city-level infections and deaths based on data the paper said it found briefly posted on the state health department’s website Wednesday night.

In announcing the release of an interactive data dashboard on Thursday, Health Commissioner Gary Cox said Oklahomans would be able to search by city and ZIP code for infections in their area. He made no mention of the missing data for smaller cities and towns.

“I’m thrilled to offer this resource to the citizens of Oklahoma as we enter into the predicted peak of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cox said in a news release. “Getting testing information into the hands of people who are symptomatic is crucial to flattening the curve and the public dashboard that is populated with data from OSDH will give anyone the ability to see data drilled down to their city and ZIP code.”

The dashboard launched briefly on Thursday but received a high volume of traffic that crashed the website, officials said. The health department has since posted a static image of the dashboard in its place.

The health department explained in a statement how it weighed the question of whether to release all city-level data: “A balance must be struck in determining the correct amount of data to release to fulfill the public’s need for information during an emergency and the obligation to protect personal health information for individuals who wish to maintain the privacy granted to them under state and federal law.”

The statement added, “In wrestling with this, and evaluating these two critical components of public health, OSDH has decided to eliminate the masking of COVID-19 data for cities that have 10,000 people or less and present the COVID-19 data by city for every city in the state, regardless of population. It is our hope that by providing this information the people of Oklahoma can make informed decisions about their health and the health of their families and we can all do our part to flatten the curve and make decisions armed with knowledge, not fear.”

Officials did not disclose how they came up with the 10,000-population cutoff. Neither federal nor state medical privacy laws mention that population threshold.

In Clinton, located west of Oklahoma City on Interstate 40, the state did not plan to release total cases or deaths, but it did publicly report that one staff member had tested positive at Clinton Therapy and Living Center. The state reported similar data for all nursing homes, regardless of a home’s number of residents.

Berrong, the mayor, said all city-level information should be made public and the state’s claim that it could jeopardize people’s privacy “seems like a stretch,” especially since the nursing home numbers are being released.

Mary K. Wright, a city hall clerk in Geary, also west of Oklahoma City, said the rumor mill in the community of 1,300 has been churning about who has been tested for the coronavirus and whether they tested positive.

“People talk, and if we aren’t getting information from officials, then it’s just a lot of hearsay and it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not,” Wright said. “In a lot of small rural areas, people still don’t think it’s going to happen here, so if we know there are cases out there then they might take things more seriously.”

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