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It could take up to six months for the state to release data showing how many coronavirus cases have been reported in each of the state’s more than 400 cities and towns, according to Maine’s public health agency.
The estimate, which a specialist in Maine’s open government laws called “shocking,” comes as more states in recent weeks have started releasing the growing case counts by municipality and ZIP code to show where the virus has hit hardest and inform decisions on how to deploy resources to fight the pandemic.
The Bangor Daily News requested a town-by-town breakdown of virus cases earlier this week under the state’s Freedom of Access Act and was told it could take up to six months to fulfill the request.
Massachusetts began releasing the town-by-town data within the past week, with its health and human services secretary saying the data would help cities and towns respond more effectively and help the state better deploy resources to respond to outbreaks. Some cities and towns there had already been releasing the data to show residents how serious the pandemic was.
Maryland began releasing a breakdown by ZIP code earlier in the month, which helped the public identify Northwest Baltimore as the hardest-hit spot in the state.
Maine is now one of two New England states that have not released a tally of coronavirus cases by municipality, with Vermont also continuing to release case counts by county. Similarly sized New Hampshire has released town-by-town case counts for weeks.
There is some debate about how useful the information is from a public health perspective. But a specialist in Maine’s open government laws, Sigmund Schutz, a partner at the law firm Preti Flaherty in Portland, said knowing how the state is tracking cases can shed critical light on its response to the virus.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah has consistently said the state is weighing the value of the public’s right to know where infections are occurring against the privacy rights of those who are infected, especially in small towns.
Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town
Releasing town-by-town data could lead to someone being identified because much of the state is so sparsely populated and many towns have small populations, he has said.
On Wednesday, the CDC director said the state is using the same privacy considerations in releasing race-specific data. But Shah made it clear the state has “every intention of sharing those data.”
Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said Wednesday that the state would have to see more cases to release town-by-town data, although he did not provide a threshold.
The state’s “relatively low COVID-19 case count” and its small population — compared to other states — means much ZIP code or municipal data “would have to be suppressed at this time” to protect patient privacy, Long said.
Maine had 937 confirmed cases of the virus as of noon Thursday, with 44 deaths. Most of those cases have been recorded in Cumberland and York counties, the most populous areas of the state.
The idea that a broad release of data would endanger privacy rights is an “unrealistic scenario,” Schutz said, and depersonalized epidemiological information is releasable under state law.
The state could explore ways to shed light on the data, he said, such as by providing ranges of case numbers per town — for example, listing one to three cases when a town’s numbers are low — or only disclosing data for towns with populations over 1,000.
The CDC primarily collects geographic data through the contact tracing process. That’s the work epidemiologists do to interview sick patients to see where they have been and with whom they have been in contact, Long said. The CDC uses that information to get a sense of how the virus is spreading.
The information is stored in a disease surveillance tracking system. Breaking out municipal data would require CDC staff to go through confirmed cases and remove personal data from each case, Long said.
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The time frame of up to six months for providing town-by-town data is due to the amount of work it would take to compile the information and the number of public records requests the Maine CDC has recently received — approximately 40 since Feb. 1, Long said.
“We remain open to conducting this work and releasing more specific geographical data in the future, but have prioritized Maine CDC staff’s valuable time for other work given the factors noted above,” he said.
Schutz said the time frame was “shocking” and raised questions about how the state is tracking the virus.
“I would imagine for something like this, they are trying to get a scope of the severity of the outbreak,” he said. “You have to wonder how effective is the state’s response if they don’t have what you would think would be basic types of information.”
Town-by-town data cannot tell the whole story of how the virus is spreading, said Joshua Sharfstein, the vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Diagnosis depends on access to testing, he said, so if testing access is not equal across the state, the spread will not be accurately recorded.
Shah has also repeatedly said that releasing granular geographic data could lull members of the public into thinking they are safe if the virus has not been detected in their municipality.
“All Maine people should assume that COVID-19 is present in their communities and take the proper precautions, including staying home whenever possible, physically distancing, and wearing a face covering when staying six feet away from others in public might not be possible, and frequently washing their hands,” Long said.
Watch: Nirav Shah on tracing the origins of coronavirus cases in Maine