Tag Archives: H1N1

FOI request for H1N1 documents still pending

Eleven months after she filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for documents related to H1N1, CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson reports that she has finally received a response from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It states that it has a certain document responsive to my FOI request. The letter says HHS will try really hard to provide the document soon, but that the folks there are very busy so it may take awhile. It says that if I want expedited processing – something I had already applied for a year ago – I should let them know. A phone number was provided in case I had any questions.

Of course the investigative report I was working on is long over, as the bureaucrats must have known it would be by now.

Attkisson says she called the number provided in the letter and left a message several weeks ago and has yet to hear back. Her initial request was prompted by the CDC’s decision to stop testing and tracking H1N1, something her sources told her was hasty and more about influencing the public’s perception of the illness than it was about public health.

Earlier: Freedom of Information: Stalled at CDC and D.C. Government (Oct. 27, 2009)


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.)

Officials struggle with timing of outbreak alerts

The Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight‘s Ryan Sabalow put together a local take on ongoing inconsistencies in how local health departments release outbreak-related information to the public.

Sabalow brings the story home  with examples from local health departments and the story of  a child who died from bacterial meningitis in an area where a previous case had gone unannounced. In the first story, Sabalow explains the nuances of when and how certain health departments choose to disclose infections, and in the second he shows just how messy and inconsistent those standards can be in practice.

At issue is the struggle to find a balance between transparency and panic-causing cries of “wolf.” It’s an issue AHCJ has tackled before, most notably during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak when disclosure varied wildly from department to department.

Felice J. Freyer, a health reporter at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island who heads the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee, said a perception of secrecy is the last thing health officials need when they’re urging people to take steps to protect themselves from a disease.

“You can’t sustain the public’s trust if you run and hide,” Freyer said. “That’s what it looks like, whether that’s what’s happening or not.”

Freyer said AHCJ members have been in talks with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. The nonprofit health organization has agreed to meet with the AHCJ to determine whether a nonbinding set of national guidelines can be developed.

Somewhere at the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Rob Hamilton, head of a Redding hospital’s emergency department.

Hamilton said he empathizes with public health officials in holding back until a case is confirmed.

One false alarm about a suspected meningitis case could potentially flood an already crowded emergency medical system with dozens of scared patients who don’t have meningitis but are demanding expensive, potentially dangerous and time-consuming spinal taps, he said.


Kim Archer of the Tulsa World has been covering an outbreak of meningitis that has killed two children and made at least five others sick. She talked to school and health officials about the public health response to the outbreak and compiled a timeline of the outbreak and response.

Fluportal.org: Postmortem of a temporary resource

Fluportal.org, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded site built to help public media cover H1N1 and related issues, has completed its grant and will stop updating at the end of this month.

As a fitting capstone to a very well-executed and valuable resource, the staff has posted an exhaustive, honest review of what the site did, where things went right and where they went wrong. It’s a lengthy read, but one that gives insight into how best to organize and execute a health-related, issue-oriented Web resource.

Other resources on the site look into health reporting and how to communicate information about H1N1 to the public:

Canadian workshop examines H1N1 coverage

The H1N1 pandemic was a unique event, with developments unfolding quickly, leading to communication problems about the crisis, according to a speaker at a workshop in Montreal last week.

The Concordian, the student newspaper at Concordia University in Montreal, reports that the university’s departments of journalism and exercise science hosted a workshop on “Politics of Health Information: Reflections on a Pandemic.”

Dr. Simon Bacon, from Concordia’s department of exercise science, participated in the 2nd Annual Health Communication Workshop and said, “This was something that happens very rarely and it was going so fast that there were communication problems between each level.”

A report on how to improve communication between scientists and journalists is expected to be completed and posted online in about two months.