Pennsylvania Department of Health drags its feet on releasing up-to-date statewide COVID-19 death data by zip code despite reaching a court settlement with LNP | LancasterOnline admits that aggregated data on deaths is governed by state law.
Citing the need for a “legal review,” the department requested a 30-day extension to provide the most recent death rates in response to a Right-to-Know request LNP | LancasterOnline submitted on September 14.
“The department is working to collect the information to comply with the latest Right-to-Know request and to provide that data,” said Barry Ciccocioppo, the health ministry’s communications director.
The extension notice is the latest delay in a legal saga dating back to last fall when the department turned down LNP’s request for COVID-19 death data for Lancaster County zip codes.
The newspaper appealed the department’s refusal to the state’s Office of Open Records (OOR), which acts as a first arbitrator in disputes over public records requests. The OOR sided with LNP | LancasterOnline and ordered the department to send the data to the newspaper.
The department appealed the OOR’s decision to the Commonwealth Court in December. Both parties to the case filed a letter with the court before reaching an agreement to LNP | . to provide LancasterOnline with the details it originally requested.
The settlement of the Ministry of Health with LNP | LancasterOnline followed an August ruling by the Commonwealth Court ordering the state to transfer aggregated data on patients enrolled in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program to Spotlight PA, a nonprofit newsroom in Harrisburg.
After LNP | LancasterOnline received the data, which listed the COVID-19 deaths in Lancaster County from the start of the pandemic through September 2021, a reporter submitted a request to the department to provide the data for statewide zip codes, and to keep it current as soon as the request is fulfilled.
“You are hereby notified that, as a legal review of the files that may address your request is required, the Department may require up to an additional 30 days… to provide a final response to your request,” says an Open Records Officer with the department wrote to the reporter on Wednesday.
That first reaction, according to the lawyer who LNP | . represented LancasterOnline is in the record store ‘playing games’.
“Obviously, the reporter’s request is for a different time period. But it’s for the same data,” said Terry Mutchler, a public records attorney and former first executive director of the Office of Open Records. “It’s a different version of holding records hostage.”
What the data says
In its effort to LNP | . In LancasterOnline’s 2021 request, the Department of Health cited the risk that COVID-19 death rates could be used to identify the people who would have died if provided at a smaller geographic level.
LNP | LancasterOnline argued in its appeal to the OOR, and later in court, that because the death counts would be aggregated by zip code, they would not provide that option.
In the to LNP | . Data provided LancasterOnline through the settlement provides state data the death toll for all county zip codes, except those where fewer than five people died from COVID-19, presumably because of the same privacy concerns the department initially cited.
Still, the zip code-level data released to the paper provides the most detailed picture of which parts of the county lost the most residents to COVID-19 in the first 18 months of the pandemic.
According to the data, the zip codes encompassing the city of Lancaster and its northern suburbs — which include Manheim Township, Lititz and Ephrata, among others — lost the most residents to COVID-19 during the period covered. Postal code 17602, which includes part of the city, West Lampeter and East Lampeter townships, lost 161 residents, most in the county.
Adjusted for population, however, the data paint a remarkably different picture of resident deaths. While the city of Lancaster and its northern suburbs remain among the county’s worst-hit areas, two of Lancaster’s rural zip codes — 17578, which includes Reamstown and Schoeneck, and 17509, which includes Ninepoints — had the most COVID-19 deaths per week. 1,000 inhabitants in the province.
A similar dataset to the state’s was available on a website maintained by the Lancaster County government, but commissioners removed it in March. That site, using data from the county coroner’s office, showed COVID-19 deaths by borough based on where people had died, not where their homes were, meaning it also included non-provincial residents who died. in Lancaster and counties that died elsewhere.
“We felt there was no reason to avoid transparency in providing that information,” said Stephen Diamantoni, the county coroner. “I think we’re very open with that information, that data without compromising the privacy of individuals.”
LNP | LancasterOnline regularly contacts the coroner to receive updates on how many people in the county have died from the virus, but does not independently track deaths by county. About 60 people in Lancaster have died from COVID-19 in the roughly six months since the county brought down its dashboard in March, bringing the total death toll since the start of the pandemic to 1,711 as of Tuesday.