Coronavirus secrecy erodes the public’s confidence
Randy Evans, Executive Director
Iowa Freedom of Information Council
The relationship between government and the governed is a delicate arrangement, even in the best of times.
Government wants us to pay our taxes. It wants us to obey its laws and directives. Citizens, in turn, expect certain things from government, things like good schools, parks, law enforcement and protection of the public health and safety.
Trust and accountability are key elements in this arrangement between government and the governed.
That has never been more obvious that it is now, with unemployment pushing toward 20 percent of working adults, with nearly 300 Iowans dead from coronavirus in two short months, and with the state’s economy trying to inch back to life.
But decisions state and local officials have made in recent weeks have jeopardized the public’s faith and confidence in their government and have threatened to upset the delicate arrangement between government and its citizens.
Some examples illustrate these concerns:
When the Iowa Department of Public Health reported last week that 444 employees at the Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo had been infected with coronavirus, Iowans had no reason to doubt that number. However, the agency’s credibility washed away when the Black Hawk County public health department said the actual number of cases among Tyson workers was 1,031.
Why the discrepancy of more than 550 people? The state’s figure came only from coronavirus tests administered at the Tyson plant. The Black Hawk County figure included workers who were tested at area doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics, plus those tested at the plant.
You won’t build trust and credibility with the public by misleading them about the magnitude of the outbreak among the 2,800 employees at the Waterloo plant. Unfortunately, state officials learned that important lesson too late.
That delicate balance between government and the governed also is jeopardized when state and local government officials refuse to tell the public how many coronavirus cases have been confirmed among the 2,200 employees at the JBS meatpacking plant in Ottumwa. Or among the 900 employees at the Hormel Foods plant in Osceola. Or among Woodbury County residents who are part of the 4,300-person workforce at the Tyson beef processing plant across the Missouri River in Dakota City, Neb.
For weeks, state and local public health officials would not comment on suspicions of Perry residents that there was a significant outbreak of coronavirus at the Tyson plant in that community. Last week, under mounting public pressure, officials relented and announced that 730 employees, 58 percent of the plant’s workforce, had tested positive for the disease.
There is nothing in Iowa law that stops the Iowa Department of Public Health from answering these important questions about the Hormel, Tyson or JBS plants or about any other employer or care center. Public health officials can do that without identifying the infected workers.
The reason these infection numbers are important to the public is not to satisfy idle curiosity.
When Gov. Kim Reynolds began lifting her executive orders that had kept many businesses closed as the coronavirus epidemic grew, she made it clear that mitigation of the spread of the disease would now be up to individual business owners and individual consumers. It would be their responsibility to take the steps they felt are necessary to protect themselves from the contagious disease.
We are back to that delicate arrangement between government and the governed.
Bringing the Iowa economy back to life involves considerable public confidence — the confidence of business owners and their employees, and the confidence of consumers, that they all can move forward safely.
But the governor and the Department of Public Health, and local health departments, too, will not build that confidence if the public thinks government officials are hiding data about significant disease outbreaks to protect the reputation of major employers, to save a community from embarrassment, or to deflect further probing questions from reporters.
Without accurate information about the magnitude of these disease outbreaks in our communities, Iowans are deprived of the facts they deserve to have as they shoulder that personal responsibility the governor talked about. It is unfair and unreasonable to expect Iowans to use their good judgment in these challenging times without access to adequate, and accurate, information from their government.
Information about these coronavirus cases should not be filtered to adjust for any public relations concerns the companies or government officials might face. The best interests of the people of Iowa need to take priority.
After all, the name of the state agency leading Iowa’s coronavirus fight is the Iowa Department of Public Health, and it is time state and local officials put “public” back into the agency’s name.
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.
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