The Mississippi State Department of Health says its been too busy dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to comply with the state’s Public Records Act.

Now it’s going to have to spend some time explaining in court why that’s a legitimate excuse.

A Hattiesburg newspaper, the Pine Belt News, has filed a lawsuit against the department for refusing to release the names of long-term care facilities (mostly nursing homes) in Forrest County that, as of last count, have had 14 deaths from the highly contagious respiratory disease. (For full disclosure, the Pine Belt News is owned by the company that owns the Enterprise-Journal.)

The publisher in Hattiesburg says the newspaper made several attempts to obtain the information through traditional means, only to be stonewalled by the Health Department. After getting the “we’re too busy” response to even provide a legal justification for not complying with a public records request, the newspaper decided to sue. It has the support of the Mississippi Press Association and other news media organizations that have been seeking this same information in their areas.

While there is no doubt the Health Department has its hands full dealing with the pandemic, that’s not why it’s ignoring the public records request. The agency has made it clear that, even though it’s legal to identify the facilities with outbreaks, it has chosen not to.

Similar secrecy had been initially adopted in some other states, too, but they eventually caved under public pressure, in part because it became obvious that nursing homes were especially vulnerable to fatalities or other bad outcomes from the novel coronavirus. According to the Pine Belt News, 38 states now release either a full or partial list of long-term care facilities that have been the site of outbreaks.

Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, defends his lack of transparency by saying he thinks it would stigmatize nursing homes to be identified, and it would make it more difficult for them to recruit and hire staff. Is Dobbs saying that it’s OK for nurses and nurses’ aides to not know what they might be getting into when they apply for a job at a facility that is the midst of a serious outbreak? How is it looking out for the interest of front-line workers to keep them uninformed about the magnitude of the risk they are taking until they’re on the job?

No matter what Dobbs’ personal opinions are or how busy his people are, the questions in this dispute are pretty simple. Is the information requested of public interest, and is it a public record?

Clearly it’s of public interest, since long-term care facilities account for almost half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. That reminder arrives daily with updates from the Department of Health. Gov. Tate Reeves, who heavily counts on Dobbs for medical advice, has just announced a major initiative — recommended by the White House — to test every resident and employee of Mississippi’s long-term care facilities over the next two weeks, since they are hotbeds for the spread of the disease. As that testing progresses, the number of cases is almost certainly going to rise because it will detect those who have contracted the illness but are not showing symptoms. That will further increase the interest in knowing the facilities behind the numbers.

Is the information public record? It obviously is in other states, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in Mississippi’s Public Records Act to say our state is different.

Dobbs has done many good things in calmly helping Reeves shepherd Mississippi through this crisis. The good doctor, though, is wrong on this one. If the governor won’t tell him, maybe a judge will.

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