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Editorial: Gather more data, and make it public

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So many resources are in short supply in this crisis — time, money, food, protective and sanitation supplies, housing — that it’s easy to overlook one that’s every bit as critical.

Information, gathered by the government, which should be public.

Most recently, information about COVID-19 infection cases in public schools, and about the state’s efforts to trace those exposed, has been in demand. It’s also been far too hard to get.

More broadly, the state’s constraints on providing data may include the lack of capacity at overburdened agencies to collect it.

For example: House Speaker Scott Saiki said in a COVID-19 House committee meeting on Monday that the panel did not get detailed Department of Health data on individuals testing positive, to help in developing future guidance. DOH indicated it was unable to identify precise factors, Saiki said, such as where the infection was contracted.

In matters highlighted by state Auditor Les Kondo, both DOH and the state Department of Education do have information, but it hasn’t been accessible in a timely manner.

Kondo released two reports, one faulting DOE for its handling of COVID-19 test results, and another critical of the DOH for lack of transparency with details about its contact tracing program.

His main points:

>> In 26 pages on contact tracing, Kondo said his office was unable to get questions answered by DOH officials, or access to documents on its policies and procedures. The valid questions touched on a range of situations, everything from what the tracing team does when language interpretation is needed, to how contacts are monitored for compliance.

>> On schools, the public — including teachers, students and their families — has the right to “complete and timely information” on COVID-19 outbreaks “necessary to make decisions concerning health and safety,” according to the 33-page report.

The DOE has asserted that its practice follows state and federal laws governing privacy and medical information. Kondo urged DOE to get legal guidance from the state attorney general. But he also observed that federal law should not preclude more detailed disclosure if anonymity is preserved — such as where the infected person was on the campus prior to the test results.

According to an emailed response to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, DOE does notify those coming into close contact with the infected person, reports daily to the Board of Education and makes weekly public reports on the DOE website, tallying cases by school complex; those affected are quarantined. Naming campus locations would merely subject schools to disruption from queries, according to DOE.

Official responses also criticized the auditor reports’ short deadlines to reply. Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE was readying for school to start that week, and Gov. David Ige defended the Health Department because it was in the midst of standing up a new contact tracing center.

They have a point. Kondo should have been more flexible with the timeline for responses. But time is of the essence, and there are ways to relay timely information, such as on a public website, without undue disruption.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association first raised similar complaints about testing disclosures before school started. Union President Corey Rosenlee said the broader community needs information to understand best practices and to make any corrective steps.

That’s also right. The world is still learning how to live safely with this novel coronavirus. And the only way that can happen effectively is if the public is provided the information that is so critical to survival in this grueling pandemic.

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