July 3, 2020

State will release names of nursing homes where coronavirus outbreaks occurred

The Mississippi State Department of Health said Tuesday that it will start releasing the names of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities where people have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The action comes only after a newspaper sued the department. A Hinds County chancery court judge ruled May 26 that the department must respond to a public records request from the Pine Belt News and its parent company, Hattiesburg Publishing Inc. Other news organizations also sought the information from the department.

The department has been releasing statistics that include the number of COVID-19 cases found in long-term care facilities. But the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, has previously said releasing names of facilities where residents or staff members test positive for the virus could stigmatize the facilities, making it difficult for them to hire new employees. Some other states, including Louisiana, have been releasing the names of nursing homes with cases of the highly contagious virus.

The judge said in her ruling last week that the Mississippi department must either release the information sought in the public records request or cite a specific exemption in the state Public Records Act that would allow the information to be withheld.

After the judge’s ruling, the attorney general’s office recommended that the Health Department begin releasing the names of the facilities with COVID-19 cases.

The department said it will start posting the information on its website Wednesday.

“Please keep in mind the list will include the name and county of the facility only, not a breakdown of the number of cases associated with each facility,” the Health Department news release said.

The department said the Public Records Act provides for release of public documents already in existence.

“Information requests for facility-specific data will have to be addressed at a later time.” the Health Department said, adding that the department “is not currently able to pull frontline epidemiological staff to perform such queries as they are focusing on contact tracing and case investigations.”

The Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — has had at least 16,020 confirmed cases and 767 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 268 cases and 28 deaths from the numbers reported a day earlier. The number of deaths includes 10 that occurred between May 6 and May 27, with information from death certificates arriving later.

The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said at least 1,935 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 395 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

The department also said Tuesday that 187,270 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Monday. More than 7,880 of those were blood tests that detect whether a person has antibodies that usually show up after an infection is resolved.