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In Reversal, VDH Will Release Locations of COVID-19 Outbreaks As Cases Tick Up

Entrance to school
The entrance to Richmond's J.B. Fisher Elementary School. Three children attending the school's summer program tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's Note: This article was updated with additional information from the Virginia Department of Health, sent after publication.

On July 1, the Virginia Department of Health stopped reporting the specific locations of COVID-19 outbreaks – including school districts. But that decision has been questioned as outbreaks crop up in schools, and a spokesperson for the governor says they’ll begin reporting that information again.

Just in the VDH's Central region, which runs from Henrico south to the North Carolina border, there’ve been 10 COVID-19 outbreaks in summer camps as well as 10 in childcare settings since the start of July, and more are anticipated as school districts move forward with fall reopening plans.

According to VDH, 22 of the 45 COVID-19 cases linked to these 10 outbreaks have occurred in children under 12 years old, who are not eligible for vaccinations yet.

Last year, a new law passed that required VDH to report the locations of COVID-19 outbreaks: not just in schools and summer camps, but in medical care and residential or day program facilities. This came after public outcry over VDH’s resistance to release the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks last summer. Under pressure, Governor Ralph Northam ordered VDH to release the names.

But because the legislation was tied to the Governor’s State of Emergency orders that expired on July 1, VDH is claiming they no longer have “the statutory authority to release this information, unless [Health] Commissioner Oliver makes an exception.”

This is despite a new order requiring universal masking of students and staff in K-12 schools that states “further declared on July 1, 2021 that a public health emergency continued to exist.”

“We fall back on our protocols that we would use for any other reportable disease outbreak,” said VDH veterinary epidemiologist Dr. Brandy Darby in an interview with VPM Monday. “We have other requirements that fall upon us under normal times to protect the identity of people who make reports of reportable diseases to the health department. So we're just protecting that privacy.”

Darby cited a code section that led to their decision to stop reporting the information. Virginia Delegate Mark Sickles, who introduced the legislation requiring VDH to report the information last year, told VPM Tuesday he’s “not convinced” VDH is prohibited from releasing the information just because the state of the emergency officially ended, and said he plans to revisit the issue when the legislature reconvenes in January, to strike a balance between “the public’s right to know and privacy concerns.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, disagrees with VDH’s decision to stop reporting this information and especially now, as COVID cases increase.

“Because, clearly, the legislature did make a policy call to say we think this kind of information is important,” Rhyne said. “So why not honor that spirit of the legislation and go ahead and release it?”

Rhyne also pointed out that while VDH is citing a section of code they say bars them from releasing the names, Virginia’s Health Commissioner Norman Oliver has ultimate discretion to decide to release the names of healthcare facilities and school districts.

“Discretion means he can release information but he is choosing not to, and I have not heard a good policy reason for why he would or should make that choice,” Rhyne said.

In an email response to VPM Tuesday, Northam’s Senior Communications Advisor Alena Yarmosky wrote: “The Governor believes it is critical to provide as much information to the public as possible. While VDH changed its practices during the summer months, when COVID-19 cases had significantly fallen, we all agree that the current situation requires a return to previous, more inclusive data updates. VDH will be updating its dashboards to include this information in the coming days.”

Since publication, VDH has confirmed they'll be retrospectively adding outbreaks back to August 1. Officials said they choose August 1 as the cut-off because they do not consider exposures in July to pose an active health risk at this time.

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network, and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.