JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Over the past three days, state leaders have been holding daily news conferences to keep the public informed during this coronavirus pandemic, yet also reveal the Mississippi State Department of Health keeps some details to itself, citing privacy and panic as primary reasons for the move.
At a news conference Wednesday, state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs addressed a reporter’s question when they asked -- as 3 On Your Side did multiple times -- for how many ventilators are available across the state’s hospitals.
Dobbs cited the potential for fear and confusion as a reason for not releasing that to the public.
“It changes so quickly, it’s not something we want to publish. It’s also something that people would freak out if they were looking and seeing, ohh ‘it’s gone up ten percent or gone down ten percent.’ It’s such a dynamic number that we don’t publish it," Dobbs said Wednesday during a press conference that aired across the state.
Dobbs admitted, however, that MSDH did know how many were available, adding that the state has enough at its disposal right now.
Phone calls and emails placed to the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Baptist hospitals throughout the state confirms 125 to 150 ventilators at UMMC and 165 within the state’s Baptist network.
During that same press conference, another reporter asked Dobbs about the number of healthcare workers infected with COVID-19: did the agency know how many were affected and whether it would release that number.
Again, Dobbs said MSDH has that information, but has chosen not to disclose it.
“We do have that number. We don’t post it. We always try to put information out there that balances the needs, you know, the general public, but also that protects the anonymity of different folks," Dobbs said.
Dobbs said that they’ve released more information as the state’s cases have increased, which is true.
MSDH provides information on age groups affected, the percentage of those hospitalized with COVID-19 and the number of tests done by the state’s public health lab, as well as the date most patients started noticing symptoms.
However, it’s difficult to understand how releasing a total number of healthcare workers infected statewide would identify someone and violate patient privacy.
That withholding of information creates a less-than-complete picture of Mississippi’s health care system and its readiness, making it harder for the public and press to question the state’s leaders about whether they did enough to fully prepare for the expected spike in cases and hospitalizations that has already taken place in several parts of the country.
Privacy concerns also serve as the main reason the state’s health department has chosen not to divulge the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks in Mississippi.
Instead, the agency discloses the county where that facility is located.
“It’s a delicate balance between anonymity and public information. As more information accumulates, we can release more information," Dobbs said.
By contrast, Louisiana already releases names of those long-term care facilities with outbreaks.
In fact, on Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health provided the number of ventilators available statewide and by region.
Dobbs said he believes telling Mississippians how many are in intensive care and how many are already on ventilators would be useful, indicating concerned residents may see that in the future.