The Mississippi State Health Department must respond to media outlets requesting public information in accordance with state law, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Pine Belt News in Hattiesburg filed a lawsuit May 12 claiming the agency did not respond to public information requests regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. The paper was requesting the names of the long-term care facilities where cases were being investigated in Forrest County.
According to the lawsuit, the agency did not provide a reason for not providing the information, it simply did not respond. By law, an agency has seven working days to either provide the information requested or say why it will not provide it.
Tuesday, Hinds County Chancery Judge Tiffany Grove granted an emergency injunction in favor of Hattiesburg Publishing Inc., owner of the Pine Belt News.
In her ruling, Grove said MSDH has seven days to either provide the information Pine Belt News is requesting or cite the specific exemption in Mississippi’s public records law for denying the request.
About half of all Mississippi COVID-19 deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, rehabilitation hospitals and residential treatment centers, among others. Nationwide, about a third of deaths from the virus are residents of these facilities.
State health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has said that supplying the information could be harmful to the facilities.
“Ever since I’ve been at the Department of Health, we’ve recognized the real potential danger of identifying nursing homes in outbreaks,” Dobbs said May 13 during Gov. Tate Reeves daily live update. “In other states, we’ve seen adverse events where people are identified and stigmatized and even the centers were stigmatized. If a center gets stigmatized, there’s difficulty finding staff, and then there is a possibility of undermining the integrity of the care.”
Almost every state in the U.S. reports some level of COVID-19 data for its long-term care facilities, although the majority do not name the facilities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only four states are not reporting any information on outbreaks in long-term care facilities: Alaska, Hawaii, Montana and South Dakota.See a typo? Report it here.