OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma State Department of Health announced Monday it will no longer release specific information about COVID-19 infections and deaths in nursing homes, cities or by zip code.
Agency spokeswoman Donelle Harder said attorneys at the department and in the governor's office agreed state law prohibits the release of such detailed information but that they did so under the powers granted to the governor under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act. Those powers, which include suspending state laws that might hinder the state's ability to respond to a health crisis, were not renewed by the Legislature and expired on Monday.
“Now that the emergency declaration has expired, the governor no longer has the authority to waive state statute," Harder said. “We are being instructed that we have to reverse course on these particular data points due to the interpretation of the state's (Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act) laws."
A recent analysis of the state's 334 COVID-19 deaths shows nearly half have been residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities.
The head of the Oklahoma Press Association, a trade group that represents newspapers across the state, immediately denounced the agency's decision.
“It boggles the mind to understand why OSDH would take a highly informative report and render it useless to local citizens throughout Oklahoma," said OPA's Executive Vice President Mark Thomas. “Knowing COVID-19 by zip code and city allows citizens to be fully informed during this time of high anxiety.
“If we want to avoid a resurgence of this disease this summer and fall we should not retreat on transparency of COVID-19 case disclosures at the local level.”
Harder said the agency and Gov. Kevin Stitt's office are seeking additional legal guidance about their interpretation of state law.
Steve Buck, the president of Care Providers Oklahoma, a trade group that represents the nursing home industry, declined a request for comment about the change. AARP Oklahoma State President Joe Ann Vermillion says the group is “gravely concerned" about the health department's decision.
“This information is vital to keep family members informed of possible exposure and to allow them to make fully informed decisions about the care of their loved ones," she said in a statement. “While AARP Oklahoma researches remedies to this situation, we hope the Oklahoma State Department of Health will reverse course and continue to report this life-saving data.”
The state on Monday reported 235 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths since Friday. That brings the total number of reported cases in the state to nearly 6,600 and 334 deaths.
As a result of hospital and incident rates remaining at a “manageable level statewide," Oklahoma moved Monday into the third phase of its reopening plan, which allows summer and church camps to reopen and businesses to resume unrestricted staffing at worksites.
People age 65 or older and those who are medically vulnerable are still encouraged to stay home, and visitation to long-term care facilities such as nursing homes will still be banned, except for patients who are close to death.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Also on Monday, Shelley Zumwalt, the interim director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said the agency had cleared nearly 30% of the backlog of Oklahomans seeking unemployment benefits since last week.