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State backsliding on COVID-19 data transparency

Just when Delta is on the rise, information on nursing homes, schools harder to access.

If the object is to obscure information or make it accessible only to data nerds, Governor Charlie Baker's administration is doing a heckuva job.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Just when the public needs more data about COVID-19′s impact on everything from nursing homes to schools, it’s getting less from the Baker administration. Just when the state’s most vulnerable — its elderly and children who cannot be vaccinated — are being exposed to breakthrough infections, the state has reduced the amount of easily accessible information available to worried families.

While some folks were taking a needed beach break from the pandemic, state public health officials decided to switch up some of the previously well-regarded reports that once offered a guide to COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and a host of congregate living facilities. Meanwhile over at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education they opted to abandon school-by-school reporting on COVID-19 cases even as another school year looms — a year in which parents will want more information, not less.


“We’re going backwards,” said Barbara Anthony, senior fellow in health care policy at the Pioneer Institute, in an interview.

“First of all, transparency in government is our due,” she added. “But in this case we’re talking about seniors in facilities where in many cases they really have no choice. . . People have a right to know what the situation is with respect to COVID in each of these facilities.”

The Department of Public Health’s track record on reporting COVID cases and COVID-related deaths at nursing homes and other congregate care facilities has been mixed. It had to be dragged — by legislation, eventually — to a greater level of transparency and even then it took months before DPH listed more than ranges of cases and deaths. As Anthony noted in a recent op-ed, one nursing home listed as having “more than 30” deaths actually had 120.


But by last spring the site was much improved and people looking for a nursing home or a rehab facility for themselves or a relative could look at the list, which contained both cumulative data and recently reported cases, and make an informed choice about which facilities were doing a good job of protecting residents and patients.

Then at the end of June, just as the Delta variant was taking hold and cases beginning to rise, DPH decided to switch from weekly to monthly reports on state-operated and congregate care facilities and from an accessible and easily read listing to a now impenetrable and user-unfriendly Excel spreadsheet.

If the object is to obscure information or make it accessible only to data nerds, the Baker administration is doing a heckuva job.

“When we were told [by DPH officials] that a lot of changes were coming to their reporting, this wasn’t what we had in mind,” Anthony said.

On July 1 the state also stopped reporting hospitalizations by age range. That decision was reversed late Thursday with hospital data on age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, and gender now back on the data dashboard, as well as the number of breakthrough cases. Hospitals are now self-reporting that data to DPH.

Also last June the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which last year put out a school-by-school listing of COVID infections, informed superintendents that they would no longer have to submit the data used to compile that listing. Too bad, because it, too, was accessible, easy to read and understand by parents.


Public health officials have thus far agreed only to report on possible clusters as they crop up in schools — hardly instilling confidence in the system at a time when confidence by parents and teachers — is truly needed.

Collectively the decisions amount to an inexplicable exercise in backsliding — if not wishful thinking. This pandemic is far from done with us and the kind of information the administration is now making less accessible, rather than more, is valuable to ordinary citizens trying to make informed decisions. And as Anthony points out, transparency isn’t a sometime thing, dependent on the whim of state bureaucrats. It’s information that everyone has a right to.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.