Updated Aug 19, 2020; Posted Aug 19, 2020 By Spotlight PA | For PennLive.com
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HARRISBURG — For the first months of the pandemic, as state officials took sweeping and unprecedented actions to combat COVID-19, the public was cut off from a crucial tool to understand how those life-and-death decisions were being made.
The Wolf administration in mid-March stopped responding to public records requests, a way for people to obtain copies of government data, emails, and other records from state agencies. Without that, Pennsylvanians were forced to rely on elected officials to share as much — or as little — information as they chose.
When the state’s open records process resumed in May, it was supposed to restore transparency. But that has hardly been the case.
Instead, interviews with journalists across Pennsylvania and a review of their communications with the state show officials are broadly applying a decades-old law authored in the heyday of syphilis to deny requests for COVID-19 data and records.
The Disease Prevention and Control Act, passed in 1955, gives the health department wide authority to keep reports of contagious diseases confidential. Most Pennsylvanians likely hadn’t heard of it until earlier this year, when — in the first days and weeks of the pandemic — state Health Secretary Rachel Levine cited it as a reason for withholding the number of COVID-19 tests the state was conducting and the number of cases in nursing homes.