Health departments refuse to release data, bowing to pressure from business groups.
There are more than 1,000 businesses and facilities under investigation for a coronavirus outbreak in Wisconsin, but the state Department of Health Services and local health departments are leaving the public in the dark about the location of 902 of those outbreaks.
Despite the clear public health benefits of knowing if there is an outbreak at your local meatpacking plant or grocery store, officials are caving to pressure from business groups.
“As a consumer I want to know, where have I been that’s had outbreaks?” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “That’s a legitimate question.”
In total, 1,035 facilities and businesses in Wisconsin have had a coronavirus outbreak, according to the Department of Health Services. DHS classifies an outbreak as one or more cases in a long-term care facility or two or more confirmed cases in other workplaces.
Of those outbreaks, DHS has only confirmed the names of the 133 nursing homes where investigations are occurring, leaving the other 902 locations unnamed. The only information DHS is providing is how many investigations are underway in each county.
Local health officials are being similarly opaque. Look no further than Brown County, where county health officials stopped releasing data on the massive outbreaks in local meatpacking plants, or Wauwatosa, where the Health Department refused to confirm cases at Briggs & Stratton’s headquarters even after an employee’s death from coronavirus. The scope of those outbreaks only started to become apparent after workers spoke out through advocacy group Voces de la Frontera.
For a brief period, it looked as if the names of the facilities would be released. On July 1, conservative group Empower Wisconsin broke the story that the state’s health department planned to release the names of all businesses under investigation for an outbreak. Backlash was swift from conservatives and business interests and DHS ultimately decided against the release.
Empower Wisconsin wrote that releasing names would “slam a Scarlet Letter” on struggling businesses. Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said in a statement that the release would “publicly shame” businesses and that Gov. Tony Evers was “committed to destroying small business.”
Kurt Bauer, president and chief executive officer of the state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, claimed without evidence in a letter to Evers that the information to be released was “highly-suspect” and that it could “spread false information.”
In another letter, Wisconsin Grocers Association president and chief executive officer Brandon Scholz said the release “does not ensure the public’s safety and only harms businesses.”
It’s not unheard of for health authorities to name businesses where outbreaks are occurring and give exact case counts for those facilities.
In Colorado, the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment has for months listed outbreaks large and small at businesses and other facilities. The data is published on a public spreadsheet and updated weekly. It currently contains information on outbreaks in more than 400 facilities ranging from child care centers to water parks.
Colorado DPHE spokeswoman Lauren Errico acknowledged in an emailed statement that businesses sometimes “feel it is unfair to have their name on the website when they have promptly reported and responded to an outbreak,” but said the public-health benefit of identifying outbreaks outweighs those complaints.
“Our outbreak data includes confirmed outbreaks across the state, and provides important risk data for the public,” Errico said. “…It is their (businesses’) continued reporting and collaboration that is crucial in containing outbreaks.”
To Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, the business lobbies’ concern that the release would harm business is unfounded, and the release would rightfully expose poor working conditions.
“If you are creating unsafe working conditions that are giving a deadly disease to your workers and spreading it across the community, you should have a scarlet letter on,” Kraig said.
Wisconsin’s DHS backed off its plans to release outbreak data after receiving “feedback” and “input,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt wrote in an email to UpNorthNews. She did not respond to a request for elaboration.
“It would help if consumers knew which companies had a lot of COVID-19 cases, and now the state won’t step up,” Kraig said. “Now the Department of Health Services has backed down, which is shocking.”
Goodsitt confirmed that there are outstanding open records requests — including one from UpNorthNews — for the data and wrote that the department is “making determinations regarding releasing records for specific facility investigations.”
“They are laying the groundwork, I think, for possible selective redaction of company names,” Lueders said.
Open records laws give government agencies the authority to withhold certain public records based on a “balancing act” test, which weighs the public’s right to know against privacy or legal concerns related to releasing a record. While DHS has not made an official ruling on the records yet, Lueders said “it would be a shame” if business names are not released.
“Would they really not release the name of a meatpacking plant that has 60 or 80 cases or something?” Lueders said. “I’m not sure they would go that far, but that would really be a tragedy.”
Tempers have already flared among local officials divided on whether to release outbreak information. In Cudahy, 85 workers tested positive for coronavirus at the local Patrick Cudahy/Smithfield meat processing facility. But that number wasn’t initially revealed because Cudahy Mayor Tom Pavlic refused to let the city’s health director release the information, a decision that resulted in an alderman physically assaulting the mayor in May.
The local struggles are against a backdrop of an absent federal response to the pandemic, and a political climate in Wisconsin where Legislative Republicans and conservatives on the state Supreme Court have thwarted Evers’ attempts to take charge at every turn.
The Supreme Court stripped Evers and DHS of the ability to unilaterally issue statewide mandates to control the pandemic, and GOP leaders have indicated they are leaving pandemic control up to local health officials.
“Local health departments have tremendous authority, and they’re not using it, either,” Kraig said. “They’re not used to having to take these political risks, they’re not used to having to take on big multinational corporations. I understand, but this is a life and death issue, because what’s happened in this country right now is that we’re creating basically virus incubators.”
Evers could certainly still issue strong health recommendations, release names of businesses with outbreaks, and have Attorney General Josh Kaul provide specific legal guidance to local health departments so they do not fear lawsuits, Kraig said.
“Understanding that Gov. Evers is in a difficult situation, it still seems to me that there are more tools at his disposal, and that it’s critical he starts using them,” Kraig said.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Bill Lueders’ name.