There is a tough balancing act playing out in communities all across America.

The spread of the COVID-19 virus has created a new tension between what the public wants to know and what it is being told.

Many of the virus stories in this newspaper, and other newspapers, revolve around the most recent data — how many cases and how many deaths are happening in a state or county.

While such aggregate information is important, especially for creating modeling projections of the virus, it is often data without context.

That's because of various health privacy rules that restrict hospitals and public health officials from giving too much detail about individuals who are sick.

People do have a right to keep their personal health information private; but in a pandemic situation, there is also a pressing public interest in knowing where clusters of the virus are being found at the community level.

We know, for example, that the COVID-19 virus tends to cause more deaths among those who are older and who have other medical conditions. That's proven to be especially true in settings like nursing homes and elderly care facilities.

But until late last week, Georgia officials didn't release the names of affected facilities in the state. And when a list of 47 impacted facilities was released on April 1, it didn't say how many cases were found at each location, or how serious the patients' conditions were from the virus.

None of the facilities in our local area were on that list (except for one in Athens), but the lack of information about that is troubling. Shouldn't families of those in nursing homes know if there is a COVID outbreak in their family member's housing facility? Shouldn't the local community be made aware of those outbreaks and the level of seriousness involved?


One could make a similar argument about other businesses as well. We've gotten a lot of email over the last two weeks alleging that various business have employees who tested positive for the virus and that the business hadn't taken sufficient action to protect the public and other employees.

There is a balance in all that. On the one hand, the virus is impacting everyone and every business one way or another. Is it fair to single out individual businesses that may have had an employee test positive? Does that unfairly give that business a scarlet letter in the public's mind?

This isn't just a private business issue, either. When first responders go out on a call, they don't know if the person at that address has been diagnosed with the virus or not, even if that information is known by the state.

Although the state could give 911 dispatchers a list of those who have tested positive in the community to use when dispatching first responders, it does not do that. However, hospitals and other health care agencies can give that info to EMS responders who are transporting a patient to a medical center, if they have that information available.

It seems like the state could have created a real-time master list of people tested for the virus that would be easily available for police, fire, EMS and other first responders to use. While some of the information might be incomplete or unavailable, some information is better than none. The result of this is that asking our first responders to fly blind when going out on calls.


First responders need to know as much as possible during this crisis, but what about the public? How much should we know about COVID-19 in our communities?

To build trust in the system, there should be as much transparency as possible — and if there are errors, those should be weighted toward greater transparency rather than less.

While the state shouldn't release individual names of those with COVID-19, it should give more of a breakdown in addition to the current county-level data — perhaps by zip code or town name. That would give more information to individual communities of interest about how the virus is spreading in their local community. This is especially true in large counties like Gwinnett, which has nearly 1 million people and dozens of local communities. County-level data there is really useless for keeping the public informed.

In addition, health officials should be required to notify large employers when one of their employees has a positive test, or is suspected of having the virus. Some local industries and distribution centers employ hundreds of people — they should be notified as soon as possible in those situations so they can help protect the health of other employees who might have been exposed.


There is an interesting historical analogy this week that shouldn't go unnoticed.

Health experts say the next two weeks will likely be the peak of the virus epidemic with numerous deaths and hospitals overflowing with sick patients.

This is also Holy Week. Among the religious events is the start of Passover on April 8.

Those who attended Sunday School (or watched "The Ten Commandments" movie) know that Passover recalls the final plague on Egypt. It is when Moses warns Pharaoh that unless he releases the Israelites from slavery ("Let my people go!" Charlton Heston tells Yule Brenner in the movie), the angel of death will take the first born of all living creatures in the country, including the Pharaoh's own son.

But that cruel fate didn't apply to the Israelites themselves, who were told by Moses to paint lamb's blood above their door so that the angel of death would pass over them and spare their first-born.

There is an echo in all of that with today's virus, a modern-day plague that seems to invade some homes with sickness and death while passing over others.

Painting lamb's blood above our doors won't save us from this virus; but like those ancient Israelites, we huddle in our homes under sheltering orders and hope that the angel of death will spare us.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers and editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at

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