Just days after the state health department took down localized COVID-19 data, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter provided health officials with a legal basis for making the information public again.
Health department officials said on Monday they could no longer provide the number of coronavirus infections, deaths and recoveries by city and ZIP code, nor any details about infections and deaths at nursing homes across the state. The decision was based on advice from health department attorneys.
Attorneys said because the governor’s authority under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act expired last weekend, Gov. Kevin Stitt could no longer waive the state’s health privacy law to allow the data to be released.
On Wednesday, Hunter said while state law prohibits the health department from disclosing personal health information, it can release epidemiological information for statistical purposes in such a way that no person can be identified.
“Releasing the total numbers of each locality, county and statewide demographic data threads the needle of providing up-to-date information to the public while protecting the privacy of Oklahomans,” Hunter said in a press release. “This data is important for citizens to have at their disposal to make informed decisions. I appreciate OSDH Interim Commissioner Lance Frye and Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge for bringing this matter to the attention of my office for review.”
The decision to stop releasing some COVID-19 data came as Oklahoma entered the third and final phase of a reopening plan started in late April. Health officials said they continue to keep a close eye on the state’s hospitalization numbers and monitor hot spots around the state. More than 208,000 coronavirus specimens have been tested to date, with a positive test result rate of 3.7 percent.
The number of positive COVID-19 cases rose by 113 on Wednesday to 6,805, according to the health department. The state recorded two more deaths, bringing the total to 341. More than half of the deaths have come in nursing homes.
Oklahoma Watch made multiple requests for detailed, non-private information for COVID-19 data in March and April. Health department attorneys denied the requests at the time, saying the information couldn’t be released under federal and state privacy laws.
The state had been providing county-level infection and death data since the first confirmed virus case hit Oklahoma in early March. In mid-April, the state began publishing more localized information on its data dashboard, including city and ZIP code data. Nursing home infection and death data was published starting April 7.
Earlier Wednesday, Oklahoma Watch filed an open records act request to see how many privacy complaints the health department had received about the release of data by nursing home, city and ZIP code level during the six weeks it had been published. That request is pending.