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Keeping Us Scared, in the Dark

Revealing national security secrets to a foreign enemy can result in a long prison term — even in execution, in extreme cases. No one wants the people in Moscow or Beijing learning how a stealth bomber works, after all.

But what about the people in Wheeling or St. Clairsville who want all the information we can get about a threat to our security — COVID-19? Are we to be treated like foreign enemies?

Apparently so.

In both our states — and, as far as we know, others — some public health officials are treating information about the coronavirus as if it was a national security secret. A talented computer hacker probably could learn more about B-1 bombers than about, say, how many COVID-19 deaths have occurred in Ohio nursing homes or what section of a county in West Virginia has been hit hardest by the disease.

Knowing too much could be hazardous to us, the public health people maintain. If your view is that they think we’re too stupid to do what’s good for us, you’re probably correct.

By the way, we in the press aren’t very popular with the public health crew, because we keep asking questions and telling you when we don’t get answers. How dare we talk back! Don’t we understand they know what’s good for us — and our readers?

Here in West Virginia, we’ve asked several times for details on COVID-19 patients. In what part of a county do they live?

None of your business.

How about details on coronavirus deaths? Ages? Genders?

None of your business, say some local health departments — but not all, it needs to be noted. The state has been more forthcoming.

We know nursing homes are dangerous places when COVID-19 gets inside. Yet Ohio public health authorities resisted releasing numbers of virus deaths and patients at nursing homes for weeks.

Finally, on Monday, Gov. Mike DeWine said that information would be provided. Public health officials convinced him to dial back full disclosure. A state database shows how many COVID-19 patients are at 61 nursing homes — but there is no report on deaths.

HIPAA, you understand. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act has strict rules for patient privacy. Releasing COVID-19 numbers for a particular nursing home might enable people, using other public records, to figure out the names of those involved, we’re told.

Of course, behind that explanation is the truth: Public health officials worry that if we know which nursing homes have become disaster areas those with loved ones in other areas won’t be as careful about transmitting or contracting the disease.

In other words, keep ’em guessing. Assume that the best way to keep us all compliant is to ensure we’re all as scared as possible. Remember, the Ohio officials didn’t want to reveal even county-level numbers until DeWine stepped in.

Governors in some states — not West Virginia or Ohio, it needs to be emphasized — have been accused of heavy-handedness in COVID-19 restrictions. It really is true that in Michigan, they’re allowed to go canoeing, but not to fire up their motor boats. How did governors such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer think they could get away with that?

As I said: Keep ’em scared.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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