Three weeks after Nez Perce County confirmed its first COVID-19 diagnosis in late March, the county was reporting one of every four coronavirus deaths in the entire state of Idaho.
So it remains: As of last week, the county had reported 19 deaths out of 67 statewide.
But aside from telling you the deceased person’s home county and age bracket — most were elderly in a community with a disproportionately older population — Public Health-Idaho North Central District has left you to wonder:
Are a lot of ailing people living in their own homes?
Do these series of infections and deaths involve people living in several long-term care facilities?
Or was there a single hot spot?
This is no matter of prying into someone’s diabetes or heart condition. COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus, often spread by people who are asymptomatic with devastating consequences on the vulnerable.
You’re supposed to rely on a public health agency for information about public health. That did not happen in Nez Perce County.
Instead, you got generalities, statistics, occasional assurances about there being no community spread and a cryptic hint about a possible cluster of contagion.
Take your pick: Are you lulled into a false sense of complacency? Or do you err on the alarmist side?
When the information was pried loose, it came from private individuals and a business:
l April 16 — Monty Spears of Harpster disclosed his 93-year-old father, Jack Spears, a resident of Life Care Center of Lewiston, had died of COVID-19.
l April 17 — Life Care Center confirmed the loss of one resident to the virus. Eight residents and 11 staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus. Other residents had symptoms but had not been tested.
l April 26 — Three more deaths at the long-term care center emerged. Catherine Voss of Apache Junction, Ariz., told the Tribune’s Eric Barker that her mother, Edna McBride, had died at Life Care Center after testing positive for COVID-19. Kathy Henrie of Lewiston disclosed the death of her mother, Norma Jean Miles, from COVID-19 while a resident of the care center. And Martha Ellis of Moscow reported that her mother, Marsha Ellis, was also a Life Care Center resident who died from the virus.
l April 30 — Life Care Center reported 17 fatalities — including eight who tested positive for the virus. That would account for the lion’s share of Nez Perce County’s COVID-19 deaths.
The center also noted that 34 residents tested positive as did 14 staff members — which would go a long way toward explaining the county’s 51 confirmed and nine suspected cases of coronavirus at that time.
Why should a community rely on families and corporations for public health information in the middle of a pandemic?
It’s not a matter of law. Far from it.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects individual medical records and applies to health care providers.
Details such as an outbreak of a lethal infection among a group of people large enough to shield any single person from disclosure do not fall under HIPAA.
Neither does the law apply to state agencies.
Likewise, there’s no state law that precludes a public health district from being more forthcoming. The closest thing to it is a provision within the public records law that shields the identity of an individual.
This came down to a choice made by state and regional officials.
All of which explains the inconsistent pattern in Idaho.
If you rely on the state Department of Health and Welfare or health districts in north central Idaho or the Magic Valley, you operate in the dark.
If you live in the Treasure Valley, you will learn more. As the Idaho Statesman noted, the state’s largest health district — Central Health District, which covers Ada, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties — took the step of reporting one death and 33 confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and residents at Avamere Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Boise.
The motive here is not one of concealment for concealment’s sake.
No doubt, local and state public officials are acting from a sense of obligation toward protecting the privacy and dignity of vulnerable citizens in the grip of a vicious disease.
But to defeat this virus, people will have to outsmart it.
You can’t do that with rumors and suspicions.
You require as much information as possible — and you have to believe the people who are delivering it are leveling with you.
If it takes a new law to make that happen, so be it. — M.T.