The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio never released hospitals’ COVID outbreak numbers

- Jackie Borchardt Numbers not consistent­ly reported Jean Ross,

It’s been almost one year since Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine promised to disclose the number of Ohio nurses, doctors and other health care workers who had been infected with the novel coronaviru­s by hospital.

Dewine said last April that he was directing the Ohio Department of Health to collect informatio­n for health care workers at hospitals, including the name of the hospital where they work.

“I expect this data to be available very soon,” Dewine said on April 20, 2020. “So, to put in plain English, you will be able to see, by hospital, the number of their health care staff that, if any, have come down with COVID-19. We will begin reporting how many healthcare workers at each hospital are positive for COVID-19, and that will be up, we hope by next week just as soon as we can make the changes that need to be made in the reporting mechanism.”

But it appears those changes were never made. And in plain English, Ohioans never got to see that data.

State officials cited several reasons, including a rickety data system. Others, like a union representi­ng nurses, saw an effort to “aid and abet” efforts by the health care industry to avoid accountabi­lity.

The USA Today Network Ohio requested that data in November 2020. On March 30, 2021, the agency responded that informatio­n was not available.

“The Ohio Department of Health is not releasing data by sex, age and facility because of protected health informatio­n,” spokeswoma­n Alicia Shoults wrote in an email.

Responding to follow-up questions about when the plan to release site-specific data was scrapped, Shoults gave a second reason for the lack of data.

“Only aggregate data indicating that someone was a healthcare worker was available,” she wrote on April 7. “Informatio­n such as a person’s employer, which may or may not have been reported by all with positive COVID-19 tests, was not in a searchable field to be compiled in such a manner.”

The state’s disease reporting database is nearly two decades old, and Dewine and other health officials have lamented its shortcomin­gs since the early days of the pandemic.

The Ohio Hospital Associatio­n had concerns about Dewine’s announceme­nt at the time, said spokesman John Palmer. One was that rural hospitals that might have reported just one or two cases would be revealing personally identifiable informatio­n. The associatio­n supported releasing data on a regional basis, he said, but not by hospital.

About 6% of all known infections in Ohio – 59,463 as of Wednesday – were health care workers. The health department has not released a number of health care workers who have died due to COVID-19.

Only six states regularly report totals for deceased health care workers: California, Georgia, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Utah. Illinois totals can be requested from state officials. Vermont says it is reporting health care worker deaths but has had none to date.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts at least 1,529 health care workers who have died, but that tally includes data from fewer than half the states. A recent investigat­ion by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News counted 3,607 COVID-19 deaths among health care workers, including 99 in Ohio.

The count included staff members at residentia­l facilities, outpatient clinics, hospices and prisons in addition to hospitals. More than half were under age 60 and the majority were people of color, the investigat­ion found.

The National Nurses United union has counted at least 329 nurses who have died due to COVID-19, including eight in Ohio, and 3,224 other health care workers who have died during the pandemic.

Nurses union demands more info

Jean Ross, a Minnesota nurse and president of National Nurses United, said it’s an outrage that data is inconsiste­nt one year into the pandemic.

“You need to understand how the virus is spreading, where it’s spreading – where interventi­ons are working and not working,” Ross said. “There will be other epidemics if not pandemics so that informatio­n will be very necessary to learn valuable lessons how to mitigate the spread for future.”

When the Cleveland Clinic announced 1,000 staff members had been sidelined in November due to being infected with or possibly exposed to the coronaviru­s, hospital officials laid the blame on spread in the community.

If that’s true, Ross said, hospitals should feel comfortabl­e releasing stats on employee infections and deaths as well as ramping up testing. “That lack of transparen­cy helps the virus,” Ross said. “And it aids and abets that hospital industry in its efforts to evade accountabi­lity for its ongoing failures in protecting us nurses and health care.”

“That lack of transparen­cy helps the virus. And it aids and abets that hospital industry in its efforts to evade accountabi­lity.” a Minnesota nurse and president of National Nurses United

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