Times of crisis require more transparency and more information, not less, from our public officials. That obligation includes everyone from Gov. Charlie Baker to the newest Board of Health member in the smallest of our towns. The information response thus far to the developing public health emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic has been a mixed bag.
Baker, once he returned from a ski vacation Utah last week, has been a frequent and calm public presence. For that he should be praised.
However, the information provided by his administration has often been lacking. As of last week, there was still little detailed information to be had on the state’s testing efforts. We know there were about 1,300 tests pending; we don’t know how many came back negative. Some test results are coming back in a day; some are taking much longer. We don’t know why. We know there are several cases in Essex County, but state officials aren’t telling the public where. And the inconsistent release of information is trickling down to the local level, where municipal health officials tend to take their cues from state leaders.
To be sure, those who have tested positive for COVID-19 deserve privacy. But wouldn’t it be useful for the public to know if that person frequented a local grocery store or YMCA? At the very least, it would drive home — emphatically — the social distancing message.
The lack of detail in the state’s message continues a pattern of response to other communicable diseases, such as Eastern Equine Encephalitis and the West Nile virus. While the state will name counties where the ailments were contracted, they don’t name actual communities, only saying some cities and towns should proceed with caution.
“Providing testing data in a transparent, real-time way is important to help understand the scope of the problem and then make sure resources get to where they need to be,” Attorney General Maura Healey told the Boston Globe. “I think it’s critical to influencing social behavior. A reason so many people were congregating in bars and restaurants, perhaps, is that they didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation.”
While one could question why she chose to first make her criticisms public in a tweet during a time of crisis, Healey has a point. Without a clear example being set at the top, local officials — and the residents who rely on them — are left to fend for themselves. And the level of transparency varies.
When a presumptive positive case turned up in Andover recently, for example, local officials were quick to share the news.
Town Manager Andrew Flanagan noted the victim had been following quarantine protocols.
“I don’t know where they got it, but I am confident the individual had no interactions in the school community,” Flanagan said. “But I want to make it clear — that fact should not keep people from taking the proper precautions.”
Contrast that with Swampscott, which had its own presumptive case reported last week.
“At this time, due to privacy concerns and laws, the town is unable to disseminate information about the individual’s identity, location, or the circumstances surrounding their contraction of the virus,” said an emailed release from Allie Fiske, assistant to the town administrator.
“While we cannot provide any additional specific information to the public including family information, places recently visited, or close contacts, the Health Department will publicly share the number of presumed positive cases in our community as this information is updated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health which is performing extensive contact tracing to identify close contacts of this case,” the release said.
Two cases, two wildly different responses.
None of this is to suggest nefarious intent. These are unprecedented times. But it is precisely during times of crisis that citizens need access to solid information. Rest assured we will continue to provide accurate, up-to-date information as it becomes available.
Much has been made of the assertion that the slow federal response to the pandemic has left the states to figure out solutions for themselves. Without more clear, transparent communication from the top, we in Massachusetts run the risk of repeating that dynamic with our cities and towns.