Transparency News, 5/12/20

May 12, 2020

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state & local news stories
"At the same time Oliver was allowing wide dissemination of personal health information to first responders, he was relying on the same section of code to justify his decision not to release information on COVID-19 infections at long-term care facilities."
For six weeks, the Virginia Department of Health has been allowing local health districts to release the names and addresses of individuals with COVID-19 to 911 dispatch centers. The policy — first ordered by Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver, according to internal emails from VDH — was introduced at a time when shortages of personal protective equipment were creating anxiety among first responders.  “The whole issue of PPE, for everyone, was an issue,” said Bob Hicks, the department’s deputy commissioner for community health services, in a phone interview on Monday. In an email released to the Mercury as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, Hicks sent the new guidance to district directors and VDH leaders, including State Epidemiologist Lilian Peake and Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner for population health, on March 29.  But at the same time Oliver was allowing wide dissemination of personal health information to first responders, he was relying on the same section of code to justify his decision not to release information on COVID-19 infections at long-term care facilities. During the first several weeks of the pandemic, he and other state health officials also said Virginia’s patient privacy laws prevented them from releasing information on cases below the health district level.
Virginia Mercury

Area resident Anna Buck asks in the first words of “the trouble with trauma,” her poem about the COVID-19 pandemic: “will we remember where we were when the streets emptied and the faces were sheathed in patterned cloth like we remember when the towers fell (?)” If Jay Gaidmore has his way, those memories will be preserved for people interested in them many decades from now. Gaidmore, president of the Williamsburg Historic Records Association, is compiling a contemporary history of life during the coronavirus in Williamsburg and the surrounding area. While he expects there to be no lack of material to choose from, Gaidmore is collecting the items for the archive with a sense of urgency. That’s because, in the age of Snapchat and iPhones, what might be of interest to someone in the future is liable to disappear quickly.
The Virginia Gazette

Dayton Town Council appointed its two newest members at its Monday meeting, held via video-conferencing app Zoom, to fill in for the recently deceased councilors L. Todd Collier and Zachary Fletchall. Bradford Dyjak was appointed by council to fill Collier’s unexpired term, which ends on Dec. 31, while Dale Rodgers was tapped for Fletchall’s seat. Town attorney Jason Ham said if not for COVID-19, Dyjak and Rodgers could be sworn in as soon as they were appointed, but since the meeting was electronic, that option was unavailable. Lawrence said that eight people applied for the positions and applicants were interview by council members and Mayor Sam Lee for 15 minutes each.
Daily News Record
stories of national interest
A nearly $800 million deal California struck with a politically connected vendor of medical masks has collapsed after state officials said the company failed to deliver most of the supply, renewing questions over how the state is vetting vendors during the coronavirus crisis. The scale of the contract with Bear Mountain Development Co. LLC came to light Friday when state officials, pressed by The Times, confirmed details of the deal, which is one of the largest made by California in its scramble for protective equipment. Former Alabama Attorney General Troy King is listed on Bear Mountain’s formation record as president of the Montgomery, Ala., company. The state has been notifying federal authorities whenever contractors fail to deliver promised supplies. Among those vendors is Bear Mountain Development, according to two sources familiar with the issue. The state has not publicly accused the firm of wrongdoing. State officials did not provide details about why the company didn’t deliver. Calls to Bear Mountain representatives were not returned Friday.
Los Angeles Times

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, student journalists are facing issues obtaining public records and accessing what should be open meetings. SPLC staff attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said a majority of the calls to SPLC’s legal hotline in March and April have been about COVID-19 related access issues. She said student journalists have called about:  Experiencing pushback from their college when reporters asked if students who tested positive for the virus were recently on campus; Obtaining information about where coronavirus-relief funds are going; and  Getting the results from campus-wide surveys that were sent out to students and faculty about how the school was handling coronavirus. 
Student Press Law Center

The Arkansas Racing Commission — in a 6-to-1 vote — on Thursday once again accepted an application on a "good cause" basis from Cherokee Nation Businesses for a Pope County casino license. The state commission also approved a recommendation to place a points value on criteria used in scoring the applications submitted by the Cherokees and Gulfside Casino Partnership. That vote was unanimous. The meeting was called earlier this week after John Tull, an attorney and Freedom of Information Act expert, said in an April 29 letter to the commission that the April 15 unanimous vote should be voided because, he alleged, the group violated the state Freedom of Information Act by reaching a decision in private before a public meeting. Tull said the commission votes followed "very little public discussion."
Arkansas Democrat Gazette

editorials & columns
"Will the General Assembly change the state law that shields the identity of nursing home outbreaks?"
What will be the political reaction to the pandemic? Some possibilities: 1. Will there be a formal investigation of the state’s response? 2. Will the General Assembly change the state law that shields the identity of nursing home outbreaks? One of the most frustrating parts of the pandemic has been the inability to get a complete picture of what’s happening, and some of that is rooted in state laws. Not knowing this information also distorts the public’s understanding of the virus. 
The Roanoke Times