Maine is now the only New England state that does not share the number of confirmed coronavirus cases by town.

Vermont joined the other four New England states Monday in reporting the number of cases at the municipal level. Rhode Island also shares its case data by zip code, following a practice introduced by Maryland on April 12. Maine releases the number of confirmed cases in each county.

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, a group that advocates for government transparency, sent a letter Monday to Gov. Janet Mills asking for her administration to start releasing town-by-town data.

“Access to more information on numbers of COVID-19 cases by specific location would have direct public health benefits, by allowing the public to better prepare and take precautions,” wrote coalition board member Sigmund Schutz, who also represents the Press Herald on public access issues. “It would also serve to enhance public confidence in Maine’s response by replacing rumors and suspicion with solid data.”

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Robert Long said Monday evening that the agency’s approach “provides the public with an accurate picture of the disease’s spread throughout the state while maintaining patient privacy, which ethically must still be protected even in the face of a pandemic.”

Long said the agency was open to releasing more specific geographical information in the future but that people’s behavior should not be affected by “whether COVID-19 cases have been recorded in a specific town, ZIP code, or even county. All Maine people should assume that COVID-19 is present in their communities and take the proper precautions.”

Last Thursday reporters pressed Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah on the issue, and he said the agency would stick to county-level information to protect patient privacy in small communities. But he also contended that sharing it in large communities with many cases would be counterproductive.

“In areas of community spread, in counties like Cumberland and York where we know there is community transmission, the presence or the absence of the virus in any one town should not determine the steps people take to stay safe,” said Shah, who has repeatedly defended the use of county-level data.

Officials in other states, however, have said the release of finer-scale information about the pandemic helps in responding to the crisis.

“Having the ability to look at this virus through the lens of its impact on specific cities and towns will help us identify potential hot spots, inform the public health response, assist cities and towns working to slow the spread, and help the state appropriately deploy resources,” Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said at an April 12 press conference announcing her state’s decision to release town-level data.

“As is standard public health practice, we will not release the number of positive cases if there are fewer than five in a municipality of 50,000 or less, in order to protect privacy,” she added.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and chair of the National Governors Association, told ABC news April 12 that his state’s release of zip code-level data would help focus decisions on where to guide the response.

A set of recommendations co-sponsored by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials – an organization of which Dr. Shah is a member – says “public health officials should strive to release as much information as possible, within the limits of the law,” and that a guiding principle should be to “withhold information only when there is a clearly justified reason to keep it confidential.”

Jeremy Youde, who studies the intersection of government and public health at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says there are potential benefits in releasing the information.

“Given the size of some of the counties we have here in Minnesota and you have in Maine, I can see some value in wanting to give some finer-grained detail,” said Youde, who lives in a county the same size as Maine’s Aroostook, which is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. “If I’m in a county that’s the size of Connecticut, what’s happening on the Canadian border is not the same as what is going on in Duluth.”

“It can be especially useful if there are any decisions to make at the municipal level about changing shelter in place orders, it might be useful for leaders to have more fine-grained information,” he added, while noting the need to protect individual privacy.

Alaska, Illinois, Delaware and other states also report at the town level, while Florida provides zip code-level data. Many counties also release town-by-town data, including Tarrant County, Texas (home to Fort Worth); Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Essex, Onondaga and Cayuga counties in upstate New York; and most of New Jersey’s.

Maine CDC has also lagged in gathering or disclosing other types of data relating to the pandemic. The agency remains alone in New England in being unable to provide a daily update of the number of negative coronavirus tests. It was unable to say how many COVID-19 patients were hospitalized on a given day – a key metric of the burden on hospitals – until April 10, three days after the  Press Herald published a story on the shortcoming. The agency had not even asked hospitals for the information until March 31. It was also unable to provide an accurate count of intensive care unit beds and ventilators until the week of April 5.

Massachusetts provides detailed information on the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at every hospital in the state, as well as the number of confirmed cases at each of the state’s long-term care facilities. The Press Herald has gathered and published the data from the hospitals for each of the past two weeks, but CDC spokesman Long has said the state would not release information on long-term care facilities’ that have had fewer than three confirmed cases.

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