Public Health Departments and FOIA: A Guide to Public Records During a Pandemic

August 5, 2021

Public health departments of all shapes and sizes— county, local, and state, have been inundated with public records requests having to do with how the community has handled the pandemic. Despite the hopes that COVID-19 slows down, the Delta variant is keeping the country wary. Public records requests surrounding pandemic procedures will not be going anywhere anytime soon. From legal issues, audits, or simply research for future public health issues, these records will continue to hold vital information to improve future public health endeavors.

The common saying, “When public health works, we’re invisible” has never been less true than these uncertain times. Eyes are on local health officials and how they are handling COVID-19 across the country. As the CDC is setting guidelines, it is on states, counties, cities and towns to set their own policies on masks and vaccinations as well as keeping diligent records of rising cases. Local health departments are at the forefront of responding to these outbreaks and mitigating the spread as best they can while working with local lawmakers to enforce policy. This doesn’t include other tasks that assist in the prevention of further infection such as planning vaccination clinics, preparing informational pieces, running public health social media campaigns, and much more.

Although local governments and state agencies are doing all they can to mitigate the damage COVID-19 continues to bring, public records requests will continue being filed. News agencies and private citizens want to know how their health officials have been handling the national emergency and what it means for their community.

Who’s at-risk?

In more at-risk communities like those living in poverty, in rural areas, or dealing with high rates of the uninsured, public officials' roles are more important than ever.

Public health departments in rural areas have especially difficult challenges as they are chronically underfunded while working with a population in poor health and socioeconomic status. A decade ago almost 1/5th of the  U.S. population resided in rural areas which mainly centered around the southeast area of the country (AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, and TX). These states also have higher than average uninsured rates in their population, which has been consistent with more infection. 

“Uninsured communities have less access to testing, less access to vaccines and less access to care. So of course, you're going to have increased overall risk among those populations," said John Brownstein, Ph.D., the chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital.

As Dr. Brownstein mentions, areas that have high uninsured populations are vulnerable to infection, meaning health departments are even more overworked and underfunded. So what does this mean for records requests? The role of public records requests then becomes especially burdensome for public health workers. There is hardly the manpower or the time to keep up with them.

Each state has its own time limits required for agencies to respond to public records requests. For most it is 10 business days, but the policies vary. If the requests are not fulfilled within the required amount of time the result is usually a lawsuit; either filed by an organization or a private citizen.

The Delta Variant

As the Delta variant has begun to take over as the dominant strain, many states have started to shrink their COVID reporting. Public health departments had been reporting the rates of infection, vaccination, hospitalization, and other relevant information on a daily basis for the majority of the past year. But going into August, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota changed their reporting to weekly. Nebraska actually stopped their reporting altogether for a few weeks and reporting could only be accessed through a public records request. They are now processing numbers again on a weekly basis.

When states continue this trend of infrequent case reporting or cease in reporting altogether as Nebraska did, public health officials bear the burden. There will be more public records requests and more work for an already overworked staff.

What are the consequences?

The Utah Department of Health has recently been involved in a lawsuit due to months-long delays in accessing COVID-19 records after Suzette Rasmussen, an attorney from Draper, UT, filed a request for them. Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act allows ten days for a response and these COVID-19 records have been delayed up to four months. The documents in question are specifically related to the state’s initial ramp-up of virus testing and infection tracing in March 2020. This suit was filed in early July 2021 and is still ongoing.

In May 2020, a lawsuit was filed by a media coalition of more than two dozen news outlets seeking a list of records related to how North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety and Department of Health and Human Services were handling COVID-19. These records included the state’s database of infected cases with personal information redacted, tracking requests of PPE to local hospitals and governments, and communication between DHHS and local health departments. The reason for the delay in records? Gov. Cooper says “state employees are stretched to the max”.

With rapid changes on every level of government about different reporting policies, masking debates, and more, small health departments are stretched thin and overworked. Health officials are left scrambling to try to continue protecting and educating their communities with key information about COVID-19. They are often responsible for everything from contact tracing and reporting to other agencies, to relaying information to local and national news as well as the CDC. They plan vaccination drives, run public health information campaigns to combat misinformation, run social media accounts to communicate with the public, and so many other tasks we are not privy to because “when public health works”, they’re invisible. 

Here's What Happens Next

COVID-19 reporting is likely not going away anytime soon. State websites like Alabama still have West Nile virus reporting and EEE cases each year despite the very low numbers. The groundwork laid out by local officials and the communications and policies set forth by state agencies will be built upon for decades to come. The records of early contact tracing, infection rates, vaccination rates, and more will be requested by a wide variety of the public to use for further study. Researchers at universities will analyze different strategies in different communities to help improve upon in the future. News agencies will review documents for errors and reporting to hold government officials accountable. The public will request records for their own peace of mind.

Public health officials deserve a tool that will help lighten their workload, while continuing to provide transparency and build trust in their communities. Health departments from CA to NC manage their public records requests with NextRequest’s FOIA software. Find out more at nextrequest.com/features.

Research

Balanced speed over transparency: https://www.penncapital-star.com/commentary/we-are-committed-to-competition-top-wolf-ofc-says-as-admin-faces-scrutiny-for-pandemic-procurement-practices-wednesday-morning-coffee/

Being Sued Over Not Releasing COVID-19 Records: https://www.thegazette.com/state-government/iowa-public-health-agency-faces-open-records-lawsuit/

News agencies will be looking into how your state handled COVID: https://www.wtsp.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/florida-contact-tracing-coronavirus-a-mess/67-bff18da2-f797-4b01-8adf-9c03169fc4cf

Records will be requested as the states are not reporting as often because things are starting to go lax: https://ohionewstime.com/state-shrinks-virus-reports-just-as-incidents-surge-news-herald/213599/

Gov. Cox & State Health Department Refusing to Release Records: https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/07/16/utah-gov-spencer-cox-is/

Role of Public Health in COVID: https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2020/20_0256.htm

No Longer Invisible: https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200408.106373/full/