Friday morning there was an interesting voicemail on my work phone from an individual who is staying in an undisclosed condominium in AuSable Township.
In the message the person asked a question concerning a story that appeared on the front page of both the Iosco County News-Herald and Oscoda Press about the county’s first death attributed to COVID-19.
The story was derived from a press release sent to us by District Health Department No. 2 (DHD2) over the weekend of April 4-5 The release did not have much information, just that an male individual had passed away and that after his death he tested positive for COVID-19.
When working on the story over the weekend I knew there were gaps that needed to be filled, so I did what any good newsman would do, and try to fill in those gaps. A story without all the information is like a brick house without mortar between the gaps; it is a loose configuration of pieces that really do not form into something useful and is ready to collapse. So I shot an email to DHD2 in an effort to get more information for the public.
“Was the individual from Iosco County, or someone came up here to stay during the pandemic?” I asked. “What was the age of the individual? Was he in the hospital when the death occurred? Where was the location of the death, e.g. at home or in a hospital or nursing home? Why was he tested after he passed away? Was he suspected to be infected with COVID-19 while he was alive?”
In closing I stated why I wanted the information concerning the death for my story.
“I hope you understand that these questions are of great interest to the public and we like to fill in gaps when we get press releases from DHD2,” I wrote.
Instead of getting any answers that were useful to the story, however, I was told that “Epidemiological tracing is conducted on presumptive positives, and identified contacts are notified, and isolated as appropriate. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) and privacy regulations will be upheld.”
The upshot of this email, which amounted to crumbs of info from DHD2, was that we had to run a story that said someone died from COVID-19, in Iosco County, and it was a male. We couldn’t say whether that male was a one-year old, or 99. We couldn’t say whether it happened in Oscoda Township, over in Whittemore, up in South Branch, or even down in Alabaster, and to top it all off, we couldn’t even tell the public what day it even happened. From the information provided it could have been a man from Oscoda, or Zimbabwe, who died on April 4 or all the way back into February.
This was until I got an email from a source that wished to remain anonymous, with intimate information on the subject that helped fill in the gaps on the case. Normally we would not use an anonymous source in a story, much like we would not run a letter to the editor without a signature, address and phone number. That is to assure that the information given to the public is accurate and there is a real person standing behind it.
We tossed this information around the newsroom and although it was from someone who wished to be nameless – albeit someone with exceedingly qualified credentials to speak on the matter accurately – we would go with the information to benefit the public.
One of the details of the information was the man died in an AuSable condo complex recently. My caller wanted to know what complex so they could possibly get checked out if they made contact with the man.
The long story short is it wasn’t the same complex, and the person was relieved. The incident shows why it is important for agencies like DHD2 to provide information to the public in extreme situations, such as a global pandemic.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The Privacy Rule protects individually identifiable health information from unauthorized or impermissible uses and disclosures. The Rule is carefully designed to protect the privacy of health information, while allowing important health care communications to occur.”
Basically if you want to discuss someone’s health information you need written consent, unless it is of great interest to the continued public health. Well I think information on a COVID-19 death would fall under those parameters. I wasn’t asking for the person’s name, I was asking for information that maybe would have eased the anxiety of our readers, who maybe worried about getting sick, and not identify the person who died in the process. The person’s name was not needed, but the facts surrounding his death – which couldn’t identify him per se – are very important to readers.
The public is hungry for information about the pandemic, and local information is what they are craving. It is one thing to say that people are dying all over the country in the local newspaper, but an entirely different thing to say someone died locally, but to provide no other information other than it happened. That’s sloppy journalism.
Lets hope in the future DHD2 will help us work to fill our reader’s bellies with full meals of information and not just crumbs.