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State won’t divulge COVID-19 cases in child care centers

Commissioner of Early Education and Care Samantha Aigner-Treworgy joined Governor Charlie Baker to provide an update on coronavirus in the state during a press conference at the State House in April. In June, Aigner-Treworgy said that there had been many cases of coronavirus exposure in emergency child care, prompting the Globe's inquiry.
Commissioner of Early Education and Care Samantha Aigner-Treworgy joined Governor Charlie Baker to provide an update on coronavirus in the state during a press conference at the State House in April. In June, Aigner-Treworgy said that there had been many cases of coronavirus exposure in emergency child care, prompting the Globe's inquiry.Nicolaus Czarnecki

The Baker administration is refusing to provide data on coronavirus cases reported by the state-licensed emergency child care centers that remained open during the three-month period while the state was shut down.

The Globe sought the data to obtain clearer information about the risk of coronavirus spread in group care settings for children. That issue is being debated among parents, teachers, and superintendents weighing whether schools should reopen next month.

The Globe’s inquiry stems from public comments by the state’s early education commissioner made in June that there had been many cases of exposure in emergency care.

“We’ve had multiple situations in center-based providers when someone who went from classroom to classroom has been exposed and the entire center had to be quarantined, including families,” Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha L. Aigner-Treworgy said during an online town hall meeting.

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However, her department would not elaborate and provided only limited data to the Globe. Department spokeswoman Colleen Quinn said that 64 coronavirus cases had been reported at 47 emergency child care programs, some of which temporarily closed as a result.

While the rate seemed low — some 4,800 children were attending 550 emergency child care centers at the time — the data were murky. The 64 cases were evenly split between staff and family members, but the records provided on families did not distinguish whether children or parents were infected. That obscured information about whether children had brought the virus into the child care centers or the infection was limited to their parents, many of whom were health care workers known to be at high risk.

In addition, the data did not make clear whether and how the virus might have spread. Though the spokeswoman said that most centers had only one case, she said approximately nine had more than one. On Friday, the department told the Globe that no program reported more than five cases.

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“What we’re most concerned about at day cares and schools is spread within the day cares and schools,” said Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Quinn did not directly address why the Baker administration would not share all available data about coronavirus, particularly as parents yearn for information about the risk of reopening schools. In a statement she said: “The Department of Early Education and Care, in working with public health experts, has developed health and safety requirements to balance the child development and safety needs of children and staff at child care centers during the pandemic. Child care centers are required to report any positive COVID-19 cases to their local boards of health, as they are the experts charged with investigating, contact tracing and aggregating information on exposure and testing.”

All positive COVID-19 cases are reported to the Department of Public Health and added to the state’s database, the department said.

On June 17, the Globe filed a public records request seeking the names and locations of emergency child care programs that reported cases of coronavirus, the number of confirmed exposures of children and staff at each location, and the duration that each classroom or facility was closed as a result.

Early on in the pandemic, parents and early educators found reassurance in the news that few children were getting seriously sick from the coronavirus. In hard-hit New York, for instance, only 1 percent of patients hospitalized with symptoms were younger than 20. But alarms went off with the discovery of dangerous inflammatory symptoms in young patients, possibly due to COVID-19.

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Studies published in July dampened hopes by showing that children younger than 10 transmit the virus, if at lower levels than adults, and that those under 5 may even carry far higher levels of the virus than adults.

California, a state that never shut its child care centers during the pandemic, recently reported 1,365 COVID-19 cases linked to child care facilities — only 261 of them in children.

But with so little known about an emerging disease, public health experts say that transparency is vital to keep the public safe and informed.

“I think it’s a very interesting question as we approach school openings: How are we going to know how it’s going?” said Sharfstein.

“In general, I think it’s important for the agencies to be transparent and to set an appropriate level of disclosure that provides information to the public without violating privacy,” he said.

The department licenses and regulates the state’s 8,200 in-home and center-based child care programs, which Governor Charlie Baker closed due to coronavirus concerns in March. The department then approved about 550 programs to continue to serve children of essential workers and vulnerable children, including those who are homeless. The state posted those providers’ names, addresses, and phone numbers online, so that parents could coordinate care.

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When the Globe sought data on coronavirus cases at those programs, however, the department refused to provide it. A lawyer claimed a privacy exemption from the public records law, which protects certain personal information, including the medical information of a specific individual.

In July, the department’s assistant general counsel, Denise J. Karlin, wrote that the department was not tasked with tracking coronavirus cases, which were being reported to local boards of health. The information was only recorded when it was provided, she said.

Karlin also argued that the names of the child care programs fell under the privacy exemption of the public records law because “the release of the names or locations of the specific programs that experienced positive COVID-19 cases would likely lead to disclosure of the identities of the individuals who had tested positive for COVID-19.”

The Globe appealed to the state’s supervisor of records, and in July, supervisor Rebecca S. Murray found the department had not met its burden to show that the privacy exemption applies.

“It is unclear how disclosure of the names and locations of the facilities will allow for the identification of the medical information of specific individuals,” Murray wrote.

She ordered the department to respond to the Globe within 10 days.

The Baker administration responded by providing a 673-line spreadsheet listing the emergency programs that had closed for any reason — not just coronavirus.

The Globe appealed again to the state supervisor of records on Friday, noting that the request does not seek individuals’ names and could not be used to identify them.

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“Disclosing the name and location of a program with positive tests is not the same as disclosing the name or identifying information of a person who had a positive test,” the Globe argued.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.