By Andy Miller / Kaiser Health News
Two state government websites in Georgia recently stopped posting updates on covid-19 cases in prisons and long-term care facilities, just as the dangerous delta variant was taking hold.
Data has been disappearing recently in other states as well.
Florida, for example, now reports covid cases, deaths and hospitalizations once a week, instead of daily, as before.
Both states, along with the rest of the South, are battling high infection rates.
Public health experts are voicing concern about the pullback of covid information. Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, called the trend “not good for government and the public” because it gives the appearance of governments “hiding stuff.”
A month ago, the Georgia agency that runs state prisons stopped giving public updates on the number of new covid cases among inmates and staff members. The Department of Corrections, in explaining this decision, cited its successful vaccination rates and “a declining number of covid-19 cases among staff and inmates.”
Now, a month later, Georgia has among the highest covid infection rates in the U.S. — along with one of the lowest vaccination rates. But the corrections department hasn’t resumed posting case data on its website.
When asked by KHN about the covid situation in prisons, department spokesperson Joan Heath said Monday that it currently has 308 active cases among inmates.
“We will make a determination whether to begin reposting the daily covid dashboard over the next few weeks, if the current statewide surge is sustained,” Heath said.
Another state website, run by the Department of Public Health, no longer links to a listing of the number of covid cases among residents and staffers of nursing homes and other long-term care residences by facility. The data grid, launched early in the pandemic, gave a running total of long-term care cases and deaths from the virus.
Asked about the lack of online information, public health officials directed a reporter to another agency, the Department of Community Health, which explained that covid information on nursing homes could be found on a federal health website. But locating and navigating that link can be difficult.
“Residents and families cannot easily find this information,” said Melanie McNeil, the state’s long-term care ombudsman. “It used to be easily accessible.”
Georgia gives updates on overall numbers of covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state five days a week but has recently stopped its weekend covid reporting.
Other states also have cut back their public case reporting, despite the nation being engulfed in a fourth, delta-driven covid surge.
Florida had issued daily reports on cases, deaths and hospitalizations until the rate of positive test results dropped in June. Even when caseloads soared in July and August, the state stuck with weekly reporting.
Florida has been accused of being less than transparent with covid health data. Newspapers have sued or threatened to sue the state several times for medical examiner reports, long-term care data, prison data and weekly covid reports the state received from the White House.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor in 2022, has repeatedly questioned Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to delay the release of public data on covid cases and has called for restoring daily reporting of covid data.
Nebraska discontinued its daily covid dashboard June 30, then recently resumed reporting, but only weekly. Iowa also reports weekly; Michigan, three days a week.
Public health experts said full information is vital for a public dealing with an emergency such as the pandemic — similar to the government reports needed during a hurricane.
“All the public health things we do are dependent on trust and transparency,” Benjamin said.
A government, when removing public data, should provide a link redirecting people to where they can get that data, he said. And if a state doesn’t have enough staff members to provide regular data, he said, that argues for investment in staff and technology.
People in prisons and long-term care facilities, living in close quarters indoors, are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases such as covid.
“They are usually hotbeds of disease,” said Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who tracks covid in Georgia. Family members “want to know what’s going on in there.”
Prison data has been removed or reduced in several states, according to the UCLA School of Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which tracks the spread of covid in prisons, jails and detention facilities.
The group said Alaska provides only monthly updates on covid cases in such facilities, while Florida stopped reporting new data in June.
When Georgia stopped reporting on covid in prisons, the project found, only 24% of employees reported being vaccinated. Prison workers can spread the virus inside the facilities and then in their homes and the community.
The group reports that at least 93 incarcerated people and four staffers have died of covid in Georgia and that the state has the second-highest case fatality rate, or percentage of those with reported infections who die, among all state and federal prison systems.
“Right now, if there was a massive outbreak in prisons, there would be no way to know it,” said Hope Johnson of the COVID Behind Bars Data Project.
Recent Facebook posts point to cases at Smith State Prison in southeastern Georgia.
Heath, when asked about cases there, said Tuesday that the prison has 19 active covid cases and its transitional center has one.
Mayor Bernie Weaver of Glennville, the Tattnall County town where the prison is located, said he hasn’t been told about recent covid cases at the prison. But he noted that Tattnall itself has had a spike in cases. The county has a 26% vaccination rate, among the lowest in the state.
KHN senior correspondent Phil Galewitz contributed to this report.