HATTIESBURG — The PineBelt NEWS filed a lawsuit Tuesday demanding that the Mississippi State Department of Health release the names of Forrest County long-term care facilities where 12 patients have died from COVID-19 complications.
The suit, filed in Hinds County by Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence, comes after the newspaper made numerous attempts to obtain the information through traditional means.
The names of the affected long-term care facilities are not protected by state law and MSDH officials provided no legal grounds for denying the newspaper’s request, but instead claimed the department was “working around the clock to keep the citizens of Mississippi safe during this pandemic.”
Named in the suit is Liz Sharlot, the state health department’s director of communications; Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of the MSDH Office of Health Protection; and Dr. Thomas Dobbs, a Laurel physician who leads the agency.
Forrest County now ranks seventh in the state with 54 individuals tied to local long-term care facilities who have tested positive for COVID-19.
A week ago, there were only 22 reported cases and Forrest County was ranked 13th.
Twelve local residents have died in these types of facilities along with two Lamar County residents who have died in similar facilities located there.
Statewide, there have been 1,267 positive cases and 212 deaths reported in long-term care facilities that include “nursing homes, intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, personal care homes, assisted living facilities, long-term acute facilities and psychiatric or chemical dependency residential treatment centers.”
The state Health Department has acknowledged that it considers these facilities to be “high-risk locations because their residents are older or in poor health.”
David Gustafson, publisher of The PineBelt NEWS, said the lawsuit was filed in an attempt to obtain information that the people of Forrest County deserve to know.
“Officials from more than 30 state governments across this country have realized that the public has a right to know where these outbreaks are occuring and they have released the same information that we are requesting,” he said. “It’s a matter of public safety and there is no existing Mississippi law that justfies keeping the information secret. The public has a right to know what’s being done to protect our most vulnerable citizens.”
The state’s Public Records Act of 1983 is very clear what information can – and should – be provided to the general public, said Gustafson.
Under Mississippi law, most records are generally considered public unless the custodian can provide a legal basis for withholding them, which MSDH officials have failed to do.
“Its limitations are few and far between and that’s how it should be,” he said. “There is no better government than an open government.”
The lawsuit does not seek the names of residents or staffers who have tested positive, only the names of the facilities.
For people with family members in group homes, the frustration of not knowing which facilities are affected have been compounded by a ban on visitation put in place early in the coronavirus pandemic.
The PineBelt NEWS first contacted state officials on April 5 when the department reported the first positive case at a long-term care facility in Forrest County. The newspaper requested additional information about the case, including the name of the facility, when they were first notified of the case and what measures were being taken to protect other residents and employees of the facility.
In an April 6 email, Liz Sharlot, director of communications for the Health Department, said the department would not release the names of the long-term care facilities.
“We are not sharing individual information regarding these facilities. Those that need to know have been notified, and there are no visitors ... so risk of transmission to the public is not a factor,” she wrote.
On the same day, The PineBelt NEWS filed an official public records request with the department in an attempt to identify the facility and reach out to management officials about their strategy for limiting exposure to residents and members of the staff.
According to the law, a public body has up to seven working days to provide “such records or copies, a place of inspection and a method of access.”
Despite its official inquiry, The PineBelt NEWS did not receive a reply from the department, and, on April 27, the newspaper filed a public records complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission. The commission is the state agency tasked with administering and enforcing ethics in government, including the enforcement of the Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act.
In its capacity as the state ethics watchdog, the commission has a statutory obligation to order public bodies and any individual government employees or officials to produce records or take reasonable measures necessary to comply with the Public Records Act.
It may also impose a civil fine upon individuals who violate the Public Records Act and order them to pay all reasonable expenses incurred by the person bringing the complaint.
The commission forwarded a copy of the official complaint to Health Department officials on April 30 and gave them 14 days to issue a formal response.
On May 1, Sharlot emailed a letter to The PineBelt NEWS written by Jim Craig, the Health Department’s COVID-19 incident commander.
The letter, addressed to newspaper staff, said the department could not comply with the request because “as a result of the necessary work that must be done to combat COVID-19, we do not have the capacity or resources to respond to your request at this time.”
Craig closed the letter by saying the department will keep the request on file and will respond “when the State of Emergency is over and (the department) is no longer responding to the pandemic with such a high level of resources.”
Other Mississippi media outlets have met similar opposition when requesting information from the department.
In all, 38 states have begun releasing the names of long-term care facilities with outbreaks – many under pressure from media outlets and other groups, including the AARP.
Kimberly L. Campbell, AARP Mississippi state director, told The Clarion Ledger that the names of the facilities should be released in the interest of transparency.
“This transparency is critical for public health and the health and well-being of the residents and staff of these facilities,” she said. “Moreover, residents and family members deserve to have this information for their own health decisions and as they consider possible next steps and interventions for their loved ones.”