by Sarah Craighead Dedmon
Eight organizations are urging the state to provide more specific location data for Maine's positive COVID-19 cases. The April 27 letter to Governor Janet Mills and Maine Center for Disease Control Director Nirav Shah was written on behalf of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition (MFOIC).
“By not making town-by-town (or zip code-by-zip code) information public, Maine is out of step with the more transparent approach taken by every other New England state,” read the letter, which was signed by Preti-Flaherty attorney Sigmund D. Schutz on behalf of the MFOIC, which includes the Maine Press Association, Maine Association of Broadcasters, Maine Library Association, Society of Professional Journalists, Maine Real Estate Managers Association, Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, League of Women Voters and New England First Amendment Coalition.
Since reporting the first COVID-19 positive case on March 12, Maine CDC has released infection locations by county, not by town or zip code. When asked for more specific location data during press briefings, Shah generally reminds Mainers that whether the virus is next door, or two towns away, their health practices should remain the same.
The letter applauded Maine’s transparency on most coronavirus data but was critical of its response to a Bangor Daily News Freedom of Access Act request for anonymized town-by-town data.
“We are also concerned that Maine CDC is reported to have responded... by saying that it will take up to half a year to release that data,” read the letter. “This suggests that Maine is not currently tracking the incidence of COVID-19 at a granular level, as it is hard to see why else it would take six months to provide the requested information.”
Maine CDC has reported two known cases of COVID-19 in Washington County, the first on April 2. Both cases are now in the “recovered” column. Only Piscataquis County has fewer known cases, reporting one, and Aroostook County reports four.
The coalition acknowledged the sensitive privacy issues which could be raised by revealing specific locations in communities with very small outbreaks.
“The solution would be to limit reporting in those very small jurisdictions only. Other solutions would be to report case numbers in ranges (e.g., under 2 cases), or only if there is a cluster (i.e., 3 or more cases),” wrote Schutz. “If a small town has a cluster of cases, the public might well need to be informed about that, just as the State has reported clusters at certain nursing homes and long-term care facilities.”
The full text of the letter appears below.