Updated June 2.
Oklahoma officials sharply curtailed release of information related to the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, taking down the numbers of infections, deaths and recoveries in nursing homes, ZIP codes, cities and small counties.
The decision to stop publishing detailed data at the local level coincided with the expiration of the state’s Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act, which ended at midnight Sunday.
Oklahoma Watch first reported the decision Monday morning. In a later press release, officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Health said the emergency designation was no longer needed.
“The State’s infrastructure is in a much stronger position for continuing to address the presence of the novel coronavirus, and the core purpose of the emergency declaration is no longer needed,” said Kristin Davis, the agency’s communications director. “At the same time, Governor Kevin Stitt and Commissioner Lance Frye continue their shared commitment to transparency and availability of critical COVID-19 data. They have tasked the state’s legal experts to explore other options for providing critical health data that would support all stakeholders’ decision making during the presence of COVID-19, while also safeguarding Oklahomans’ protected health information.”
The state’s data dashboard, which debuted in mid-April, no longer publishes COVID-19 data by ZIP code, city or in counties with fewer than 20,000 people. The most recent ZIP code data, published Saturday, showed the Guymon area with the largest number of cases at 761. Many of those infections have been connected to the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant.
The decision to stop providing city data took some by surprise, with Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce saying on Twitter his city wasn’t notified in advance of the change in policy.
AARP Oklahoma criticized the decision to stop publishing nursing home infection data. The state had been providing that data by facility, along with a breakdown by staff and residents, since April 7. Oklahoma was among the first states in the country to release COVID-19 data by nursing home.
“This information is vital to keep family members informed of possible exposure and to allow them to make fully informed decisions about the care of their loved ones,” said AARP Oklahoma State President Joe Ann Vermillion. “While AARP Oklahoma researches remedies to this situation, we hope the Oklahoma State Department of Health will reverse course and continue to report this life-saving data. In the meantime, we urge all long-term care facilities to do the right thing and continue to voluntarily disclose this information to all residents and their caregivers.”
Oklahoma Watch made multiple requests for detailed, non-private information for COVID-19 data in March and April. At the time, the requests were denied because the Oklahoma State Department of Health said the information couldn’t be released under federal and state privacy laws.
That determination changed by mid-April, when the state began publishing local data on its online data dashboard, including city and ZIP code information. Nursing home infection and death data has been published since April 7. More than half of the state’s 334 deaths from COVID-19 have come in nursing homes.
In announcing the data dashboard on April 16, then-Health Commissioner Gary Cox made no mention of offering the data only as long as the state’s catastrophic health emergency was in effect. Cox was replaced by new interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye after being unable to secure confirmation by the Senate.
Officials said they are consulting with legal experts to see how the state might be able to offer additional COVID-19 data. The health department will continue to publish weekday reports on hospital capacity, personal protective equipment supplies and virus data on a statewide basis. It also plans to keep issuing a weekly epidemiological report.