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Covid data disappearing in some states even as delta surges

As Covid case numbers rise nationwide, Georgia and some other states have restricted the case count data they share publicly.

Two state government websites in Georgia recently stopped posting updates about Covid-19 cases in prisons and long-term care facilities, just as the dangerous delta variant was taking hold.

Data have been disappearing recently in other states, as well.

Florida, for example, now reports Covid cases, deaths and hospitalizations once a week, instead of daily, as before.

Both states, along with the rest of the South, are battling high infection rates.

Public health experts are voicing concern about the pullback of Covid information. Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the trend is “not good for government and the public” because it gives the appearance that governments are “hiding stuff.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

A month ago, the Georgia agency that runs state prisons stopped giving public updates about the numbers of new Covid cases among inmates and staff members. The Corrections Department, in explaining the decision, cited its successful vaccination rates and “a declining number of Covid-19 cases among staff and inmates.”

Now, a month later, Georgia has among the highest Covid infection rates in the U.S. — along with one of the lowest vaccination rates. But the Corrections Department hasn’t resumed posting case data on its website.

Asked by Kaiser Health News about the Covid situation in prisons, spokesperson Joan Heath said Monday that the department had 308 active cases among inmates.

“We will make a determination whether to begin reposting the daily Covid dashboard over the next few weeks if the current statewide surge is sustained,” Heath said.

Another state website, run by the Public Health Department, no longer links to a listing of the number of Covid cases among residents and staffers of nursing homes and other long-term care residences by facility. The data grid, launched early in the pandemic, gave running totals of long-term care cases and deaths from the virus.

Asked about the lack of online information, public health officials directed a reporter to another agency, the Community Health Department, which said Covid information for nursing homes could be found on a federal health website. But finding and navigating that link can be difficult.

“Residents and families cannot easily find this information,” said Melanie McNeil, the state’s long-term care ombudsman. “It used to be easily accessible.”

Georgia updates overall numbers of Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths five days a week, but it has recently stopped its weekend Covid reporting.

Other states also have cut back their public case reporting, even though the country is being engulfed in a fourth, delta-driven Covid surge.

Florida had issued daily reports about cases, deaths and hospitalizations until the rate of positive test results dropped in June. Even when caseloads soared in July and August, the state stuck with weekly reporting.

Florida has been accused of being less than transparent with Covid health data. Newspapers have sued or threatened to sue the state several times for medical examiner reports, long-term care data, prison data and weekly Covid reports the state received from the White House.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor next year, has repeatedly questioned Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to delay the release of public data about Covid cases and has called for restoring daily reporting of Covid data.

Nebraska, which discontinued its daily Covid dashboard June 30, recently resumed reporting, but only weekly. Iowa also reports weekly; Michigan reports three days a week.

Public health experts said full information is vital for a public dealing with an emergency like the pandemic — similar to the government reports needed during hurricanes.

Benjamin said, “All the public health things we do are dependent on trust and transparency.”

When it removes public data, a government should provide a link redirecting people to where they can get the data, he said. And a shortage of staff members to provide regular data, he said, is an argument that a state should invest in staff and technology.

People in prisons and long-term care facilities, living in close quarters indoors, are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases, such as Covid-19.

“They are usually hotbeds of disease,” said Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who tracks Covid-19 in Georgia. Family members “want to know what’s going on in there.”

Prison data have been removed or reduced in several states, according to the UCLA School of Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which tracks the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, jails and detention facilities.

The group said Alaska provides only monthly updates about Covid cases in such facilities, while Florida stopped reporting new data in June.

When Georgia stopped reporting on Covid-19 in prisons, the project found, only 24 percent of employees reported having been vaccinated. Prison workers can spread the virus in the facilities and then in their homes and the community.

The group reported that at least 93 incarcerated people and four staffers have died of Covid-19 in Georgia and that the state has the second-highest case death rate, or percentage of those with reported infections who die, among all state and federal prison systems.

“Right now, if there was a massive outbreak in prisons, there would be no way to know it,” said Hope Johnson of the COVID Behind Bars Data Project.

Recent Facebook posts point to cases at Smith State Prison in southeastern Georgia.

Asked about cases there, Heath said Tuesday that the prison had 19 active Covid cases and that its transitional center had one.

Mayor Bernie Weaver of Glennville, the Tattnall County town where the prison is located, said he hasn’t been told about recent Covid cases at the prison. But he said Tattnall itself has had a spike in cases. The county’s vaccination rate is 26 percent, among the lowest in the state.

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Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News contributed.