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D.C. Government Keeping Public Informed of Infection Details on Its Staff and Those in Custody; Some Other Places, Not So Much

Fritz Mulhauser | April 18, 2020 | Last modified: April 19, 2020

If you’re arrested or locked up in youth detention, a mental hospital or jail, you probably have more to worry about than whether the patrol officer or guard wears a mask or has been tested for the novel corona virus.  But the public in general, under pressure to follow a host of burdensome directives in the emergency, does wonder if the government is doing its part to maintain workers healthy enough to safely meet an anxious public and help those committed to its care.

So can you find out about the health status of agencies’ front-line staff?

In the District, yes.

Data updated daily are on the virus information site maintained by the D.C. government — You can learn numbers of cases and quarantines among those in care and custody, also staff tested and results and numbers off duty because of quarantine (and those returned). Covered are police, fire and corrections staff, and people in custody in adult and youth facilities. Also the same for those in shelters and St. Elizabeths Hospital.

But you can’t find such data in Arlington or Alexandria, Virginia. Nor some other places, for example in Philadelphia or Columbus.  

Washington Post writers Justin Jouvenal, Rachel Weiner and Peter Hermann (assisted by Dan Morse) pulled together a full story on this varied situation on today’s (18) Metro front under the headline “Public safety agencies often silent on infections.”

That appears to refer to the two Virginia cities and, until lately, the Fairfax County sheriff’s office. The sheriff was refusing to report infection among deputies working at the jail where at least one detainee has tested positive–at least until reporters’ inquiries led to disclosure Friday (17) that five deputies tested positive.

These agencies contrast, the reporters noted, with the open data provided by the District government, and the same available from police and fire departments in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland, and in Loudoun and Fairfax Counties in Virginia.  

Long-time WUSA-TV reporter here (and former P.G. County firefighter) Dave Statter, now retired and working as a consultant to public safety agencies, blogged at his ”Statter911” website several weeks ago with criticism of officials’ reasons, for example in Philadelphia, for limited data release – maintaining employee privacy and preventing public panic.

Statter praised D.C. officials for publishing data after initial hesitation (not disclosing two infected firefighters), saying the mayor and staff eventually “got this one exactly right. It’s the type of openness and honesty I teach. It builds trust. It acknowledges problems and shows leadership addressing the issues. It lets the public know your people on the front lines are greatly impacted by the same crisis we all are, but they continue to battle on to protect us. Not sharing this information can make the public start to believe you’re hiding a much bigger crisis that may not exist at all.” 

Statter told the Post he sees providing such public data as a duty. “The public—that’s who you serve—they should know what’s going on in the public safety agencies, particularly at a time of a crisis.”

Barebones statistics are a good start. Access to details can be a different story, for example on just what steps are really in place to protect jail inmates during the pandemic. (The Post account addressed only public access to statistics.)

In the District, a pending civil rights lawsuit, Banks v. Wood, No. 20-cv-0849 (D.D.C.), brought by residents at D.C. Jail says few helpful policies are actually in place and instead seeks urgent downsizing to address growing virus risks. The court received very different accounts from lawyers for the residents and for the District government about those policies, whether staff are following them, and the resulting jail conditions. Too much was uncertain in early filings in the case so the court sent in an independent inspection team for direct observation of distancing, testing, quarantining, cleanliness, etc. Facts in their 38-page report confirmed the residents’ claims in the personal affidavits filed with the original lawsuit. The court concluded in an opinion filed Sunday (19) that “[p]laintiffs have produced evidence that inadequate precautionary measures at DOC facilities have increased their risk of contracting COVID-19 and facing serious health consequences, including death. The Court further notes that the number of inmates testing positive for COVID-19 is growing daily. Given the gravity of Plaintiffs’ asserted injury, as well as the permanence of death, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have satisfied the requirement of facing irreparable harm unless injunctive relief is granted.” The court declined to order downsizing, as many releases have occurred already during the lawsuit, but did order improvements in distancing, quarantining and other conditions.