This week, the Oregon Health Authority changed its policy, announcing it would no longer provide as much demographic information about each person who had died from COVID-19 – information such as date of death, age, county of residence, location at time of death, and how long ago they had tested positive for the virus. Instead, the public would only be informed of an aggregate description of people who had died in a week, listing the range of ages within which people had died, for instance.
At first, Governor Kate Brown defended this policy, but now has ordered OHA to resume issuing more comprehensive information, tweeting, “In a pandemic, Oregonians must have access to timely info to keep themselves & their families safe. I have directed @OHAOregon to disclose all data on COVID-19 deaths weekly, including the date the individual tested positive, their age, location & underlying health conditions.” She continued on Twitter with, “This is in addition to daily data updates that include reported deaths by age bracket, allowing for both timely updates on a daily basis, and full and accurate information on a weekly basis.”
The Governor has been strongly criticized for giving teachers priority for vaccination over elderly people, saying this was in effect sacrificing elders for the sake of getting children back into school sooner. Some of the Governor’s critics have suggested that by changing from daily to weekly reporting of deaths, and by not listing the exact ages of the dead, it would be harder to attach a specific number of deaths to the policy.
Spokesperson for Oregon Republican Senators Dru Draper said to OPB, “A senior who has been patiently waiting at home while waiting for the vaccine might reasonably think the timing of the decision to obscure the data is corrupt – given the controversy about teachers jumping them in line.”
Democratic State Senator Sara Gelser of Corvallis has kept a running tally of the names of Oregonians as they died of COVID-19, feeling that it was humanizing this disease. “We weren’t just turning these people into numbers,” she said to OPB, “we recognized every day these people are loved by others in the community.”
Keeping track of the deaths, Gelser noticed how many were over 65, and also how many were dying in retirement homes, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
“Did they not want to go to a hospital? If they did, would they have had a different outcome? Is it a choice or is it a barrier we hear about that hospitals are turning around elderly and frail people?” Gelser asked. She wondered about other people who often slipped through the cracks, especially during a crisis, such as the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill.
“Until it’s all done, I don’t know [that] we have thought of all the ways we can pick apart this data,” Gelser said. As an example, she pointed out how, on the last day that OHA reported individual data, it reported:
Oregon’s 1,904th COVID-19 death is a 27-year-old woman in Hood River County who tested positive on Dec. 22 and died on Jan. 23 at Oregon Health & Science University Hospital. She had no underlying conditions.
Under the reduced-detail regimen, that 1,904th death would have been listed merely as a person of unspecified gender, between 20 and 29. There’d have been no information at all about when he or she tested positive, what day they died, whether they died at home or in a hospital, what county they were from, or whether they had any underlying conditions.
“It’s interesting and concerning when you are reading the list and you see something outside the norm, or how it all changes over time,” Gelser said.
Another State Senator who keeps track of every Oregonian who dies of the coronavirus is Portland Democrat Michael Dembrow, who also asked OHA to reconsider its reduced data-release policy. Dembrow issues a daily newsletter which includes a section listing individual COVID-19 deaths.
“I heard from many people who go straight to that section,” Dembrow told OPB, “it helps them to empathize and visualize that person and their family,”
Both Democratic State Senators and also Patrick Allen of the OHA rejected the idea that Brown had changed the policy to benefit herself. Gelser said she thought the aggregate data on the OHA dashboards actually had more practical use than the individual data did.
Expressing frustration with the criticism the Governor and OHA are receiving, Gelser said, “I think if they give everyone a kitten, people would find evil intent for doing it. Everyone is so exhausted, and being held accountable on so many different metrics.”
On Friday, Allen said that compiling the death data is labor-intensive, and there was concern at the Authority that if there were another sharp increase in cases, it would overwhelm the staff’s ability to keep up.
Brown said she was committed to giving the Authority everything it would need.
For now, OHA will offer both the individual information as well as the aggregate dashboard data.
By John M. Burt