The Oklahoma State Department of Health will resume releasing local COVID-19 data after consulting with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, according to a Wednesday afternoon press release.
According to the release, Hunter advised the agency that releasing data about COVID-19 infections doesn’t violate state or federal law, as long as the information doesn’t identify individuals. OSDH will continue releasing local infection data and deaths after the consultation, and demographic data — like age or race — will be released only in aggregate.
The release said state officials were concerned that releasing detailed demographic information could inadvertently identify someone who is infected with or died from COVID-19, violating state laws on medical record confidentiality.
Hunter advised interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye and Secretary of Health and Mental Health Jerome Loughridge that while state law prohibits OSDH from disclosing personal health information, the agency can still release epidemiological information for statistical purposes in a way that doesn’t identify individuals, according to the release.
“It is incumbent upon us as state leaders to protect sensitive health information,” Frye said in the release. “I encourage Oklahomans to use the information to make informed decisions in dealing with the (COVID-19) pandemic.”
According to OSDH data for May 29 — the last day before the agency stopped reporting local data — there were 242 total reported COVID-19 cases, 207 total recoveries and 20 total coronavirus-related deaths in Norman. There were 126 total COVID-19 cases and 18 total deaths reported in Norman nursing homes.
The numbers were being released previously under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act, allowing the governor to temporarily suspend state laws that could hinder the state’s ability to respond to a health emergency. The emergency declaration under that act expired Monday.
OSDH announced in a Monday email it would no longer be able to publish COVID-19 data by city, ZIP code or long-term care or nursing home facility because of the expiration of the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act. The agency continued to report county data.
This change brought much backlash on social media from Oklahomans, including Norman Mayor Breea Clark, who tweeted that the change was “unacceptable.”
“We’re still in a pandemic,” the tweet read. “How are we supposed to determine if we can continue moving forward with opening our cities if we don’t have the data? @HealthyOklahoma needs to work with @GovStitt so cities can continue to have this vital information. #covid19 #localgov.”
Unacceptable. We’re still in a pandemic. How are we supposed to determine if we can continue moving forward with opening our cities if we don’t have the data? @HealthyOklahoma needs to work with @GovStitt so cities can continue to have this vital information. #covid19 #localgov https://t.co/qz3KWejakI— Mayor Breea Clark (@clarkfornorman) June 1, 2020
The Norman Transcript reported that before Hunter’s announcement, city spokesperson Annahlyse Meyer said the city had not been getting updates on city cases and deaths since the OSDH stopped providing city and ZIP code-specific COVID-19 data early this week.
Meyer said Norman officials would have to find another way to evaluate reopening criteria if the state didn’t resume releasing detailed data.
“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 the 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.”