Editorial: Alameda County stonewalling on COVID nursing home records

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Judge has told the county to stop trying to hide behind bogus claims that federal laws prevent disclosure

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Alameda County continues to stonewall on providing basic data to help families make informed decisions about where to send their elderly loved ones if they need to live in care facilities.

A judge has told the county to stop blocking access to the data and hiding behind bogus claims that federal patient privacy laws prevent disclosure. Yet county attorneys continue to drag their feet, threatening to appeal rather than comply with the order.

At issue is information about the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus at senior care homes, such as skilled nursing facilities and residential care facilities. Some data is available from the state, but even that information is incomplete.

From the sketchy state data, it appears that senior facilities account for about 5% of coronavirus cases in California but 33% of the deaths. Any family seeking a home for a loved one would want to know the facility’s COVID record.

And policymakers and regulators should be scouring this data to understand the magnitude of the outbreak and identify facilities that fail to take proper COVID precautions.

But Alameda County, for 10 months now, has refused this news organization’s request to release it. The county claims the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prohibits disclosure because release could infringe on patient privacy.

It’s a ridiculous argument. As Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo noted in his Jan. 7 order to release the records, no one is seeking patients’ names or personal information. Moreover, the judge ruled, the federal law defers to state transparency laws, and California’s Public Records Act clearly requires disclosure.

Alameda County residents should be outraged that their elected officials are wasting taxpayer money on costly attorneys to try to shield the public from such critical information.