In reversal, Mich. agency releases H1N1 documents

Michigan’s Department of Community Health has reversed an earlier decision to withhold documents about how the state has spent money on H1N1 prevention.

Todd A. Heywood of the Michigan Messenger reports the department had turned down a Freedom of Information Act request from that publication for “information related to a $25,000 budget item for the involvement of the Civilian Air Patrol. It also refused to release information about an exercise which was budgeted at nearly $50,000 and refused to identify which ‘partner agencies’ had received gloves, masks and other supplies purchased by the department.”

In its denial, the department said releasing the information would violate the state’s anti-terrorism laws. Heywood reports the documents that have been released do not appear to have any relationship to terrorism or national security.

“It’s absurd to think that releasing plans for preventing and treating H1N1 would compromise the state’s security or increase its vulnerability to terrorism,” said Charles Ornstein, president of AHCJ’s board of directors and a senior reporter at ProPublica.

“I’m pleased the Michigan Department of Community Health released the requested documents, and I hope reporters in other states will ask for similar information.”

AHCJ has been concerned about the withholding of information about H1N1 around the country. Last fall, an informal poll of AHCJ members and a review of press releases and news reports revealed a wide variation in what information local and state health officials are disclosing about H1N1 deaths.

At the time, Felice Freyer, chair of AHCJ’s Right-to-Know Committee, said, “in some places, officials are withholding more information than necessary, perhaps because of a lack of clear guidelines about what should be revealed. This comes at a high cost; health officials lose the public’s trust when they hide information. Anyone may wonder: If they won’t even say how old the victim was, what else are they concealing about the sicknesses affecting my community?”

After being approached by AHCJ, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers agreed to organize a group of state officials, public information officers and health-care writers to develop guidelines on reporting deaths that are of concern or interest to the public. We will learn more details soon, says Freyer, a reporter at The Providence (R.I.) Journal, but “we are happy that ASTHO agrees the is­sue is worthy of discussion and intends to include us.”

In California, Ryan Sabalow of the Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight put together a local take on ongoing inconsistencies in how local health departments release outbreak-related information to the public. He wrote about examples from local health departments and explained the nuances of when and how certain health departments choose to disclose infections, and how inconsistent those standards can be in practice.

(Hat tip to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)

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