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Is government up to the task?

By Walter Geiger We are in the midst of a pandemic. Coronavirus kills! It will continue to kill. There is only so much we, as individuals, can do. Yes, we can wash our hands until they are red and raw. Yes, we can stay away from school, church, sporting events, weddings and funerals but, when it comes to actually dealing with this virus, we are at the mercy of government in its various manifestations. Expect even more draconian measures this week – namely a shelter in place order for all Georgians. Those in government have an innate need for secrecy. That need grows stronger the higher you go up the governmental ladder. Generally, there are enough eyes on local politicians to ensure openness. At the state and national level, politicians are more likely to obfuscate. Those in government also need to control the message. No one had heard the term ‘˜social distancing’ until last week. Someone in government felt the need to pretty up the word ‘˜quarantine’ because people link it with impending death. Take Georgia’s Department of Public Health (DPH). There is no question those in our local health departments care deeply about the wellbeing of the communities they serve and the patients they see. We have seen this exhibited time and time again over the years. But DPH is a government agency and, by definition, a bureaucracy. Consider the following. Late on Sunday, March 15 news leaked out of a confirmed local case of COVID-19. Monday morning, things escalated quickly. County and municipal buildings were locked up. Criminal and civil court proceedings were discontinued. Probate and magistrate court began providing only essential services. Those in local government and law enforcement freely admitted they knew of the local case and thus took action. DPH, on the other hand, denied it knew of the case. Then, on March 17 the agency issued a news release confirming the case but did not list it on the state COVID-19 case count map. There was no explanation. Eventually we learned Spalding County officials were told the initial local victim was diagnosed in Spalding and the test done by a private lab. Friday morning, March 20, we asked pointed questions about this patient and were told DPH would only list confirmed cases and county of residence. We were told the local case had not shown up on the case count map because ‘it takes longer for commercial lab results to show up in the system’. The next question was easy. If DPH knew of this case and issued a news release on it three days earlier and it was still not on the case count they supposedly maintained, then who was manipulating those numbers? The answer was, ‘it takes longer for commercial lab results to show up in the system’. Presto! At 7 p.m. Friday, the local case showed up on the map. All of this goes back to patient privacy laws known as HIPPA. Those of us in the media have long been skeptical of these laws. Now the spotlight is on them. Should the public know the severity of local cases and the movements of those infected? Many would argue in the affirmative. One could make a substantive argument that HIPPA laws now endanger public health. Again we asked DPH directly. The answer, ‘Health officials identify and contact the individuals who may have had contact with a resident who tested positive for COVID-19’. Obviously, the young lady with the unenviable task answering these questions had been told to obfuscate. Then came the Friday afternoon document dump. Journalists are aware of this. Government obfuscates by dumping press releases after the close of business on Friday, assuming they will go unnoticed or nearly so. At 5:45 p.m. Gov. Brian Kemp issued a brief release reporting he had transferred $19,552,646 from his emergency fund and GEMA, DPH and Homeland Security had spent it on medical supplies and equipment. By any measure, that is a large supply of medical equipment but Kemp and his staff guessed correctly. This move received little to no news coverage. We can trust the doctors, nurses, medical technicians, first responders, law enforcement and all the others on the front lines of this fight to do what they think is best. But, they – like us – are dependent on government for information, direction and the ammunition to win this war against coronavirus. Government alone is keeping the casualty and body counts from this war. Government alone is alerting those who may have been exposed to the disease. Are those in government up to the task? We will know soon enough.

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