Two state government websites in Georgia recently stopped posting updates on Covid-19 cases in prisons and long-term care facilities when the dangerous Delta variant caught on.

In other states, too, data has recently disappeared.

Florida, for example, now reports Covid cases, deaths and hospital admissions once a week instead of daily.

Both states, along with the rest of the south, are struggling with high infection rates.

Benjamin

Public health experts express concern over Covid information withdrawal. Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, called the trend “not good for government and the public” because it creates the appearance that governments are “hiding things.”

A month ago, the Georgia agency, which operates state prisons, stopped public updates on the number of new Covid cases among inmates and staff. The correctional facility justified this decision with its successful vaccination rates and “a declining number of Covid-19 cases among employees and inmates”.

Now, a month later, Georgia has one of the highest Covid infection rates in the US – along with one of the lowest vaccination rates. But the correction department has not resumed posting case data on their website.

When asked by Georgia Health News / Kaiser Health News about the Covid situation in prisons, department spokeswoman Joan Heath said Monday there were currently 308 active cases among inmates.

“We will decide in the next few weeks whether to start republishing the daily Covid Dashboard if the current nationwide surge continues,” said Heath.

Another government website operated by the Ministry of Health no longer links to a listing of the number of Covid cases among residents and employees of nursing homes and other long-term care homes by facility. The data grid launched at the beginning of the pandemic indicated a running total of long-term care cases and deaths from the virus.

When asked about the lack of information online, public health officials referred a reporter to another agency, the Department of Community Health, who stated that Covid information on nursing homes could be found on a federal health website. However, this link can be difficult to find and navigate.

“Local residents and families cannot find this information easily,” said Melanie McNeil, the state’s long-term care ombudswoman. “It used to be easily accessible.”

Georgia provides the state with the total number of Covid cases, hospital admissions, and deaths in the state five days a week, but recently stopped its weekend Covid coverage.

Other states have also scaled back their public case coverage despite the nation’s embroiled in a fourth, delta-driven surge in Covid.

Florida had published daily reports of cases, deaths, and hospital admissions until the rate of positive test results dropped in June. Even as the number of cases skyrocketed in July and August, the state stuck with weekly coverage.

Florida has been accused of being less transparent with Covid health data. Newspapers have sued the state multiple times or threatened to sue it over appraisal reports, long-term care dates, prison dates, and weekly Covid reports the state received from the White House.

Florida Commissioner for Agriculture Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor in 2022, has repeatedly questioned Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ decision to postpone public disclosure of Covid cases and restore daily reporting requested via Covid data.

Nebraska retired its daily Covid dashboard on June 30th and then recently resumed reporting, but only weekly. Iowa also reports weekly; Michigan, three days a week.

Public health experts said full information for the public is vital to dealing with an emergency like the pandemic – much like the government reports needed during a hurricane.

“All the things we do in the public health field depend on trust and transparency,” said Benjamin.

A government should provide a link in removing public data that will redirect people to where they can get that data, he said. And if a state does not have enough staff to provide regular data, that speaks for investments in staff and technology.

Vulnerable population groups

People in prisons and long-term care facilities who live in confined spaces indoors are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases such as Covid.

“They’re usually breeding grounds for disease,” said Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who tracks Covid in Georgia. Family members “want to know what’s going on in there”.

Prison data has been removed or reduced in several states, according to the UCLA School of Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which is tracking the spread of Covid in prisons, prisons and detention centers.

The group said Alaska only offers monthly updates on Covid cases at such facilities, while Florida stopped reporting new data in June.

When Georgia stopped reporting on Covid in prisons, only 24 percent of employees said they were vaccinated. Prison workers can spread the virus inside the facilities and then into their homes and community.

The group reports that at least 93 prisoners and four employees have died of Covid in Georgia and that the state has the second highest death rate or death rate.

“If there was a massive prison outbreak now, there would be no way we could know,” said Hope Johnson of the COVID Behind Bars Data Project.

Recent Facebook posts point to cases at Smith State Prison in southeast Georgia.

When asked about cases there, Heath said Tuesday that the prison has 19 active Covid cases and its transition center has one.

Mayor Bernie Weaver of Glennville, the city in Tattnall County where the prison is located, said he had not been informed of the recent Covid cases in the prison. However, he found that even in cases, Tattnall had a spike. The county has a vaccination rate of 26 percent, one of the lowest in the state.

Kaiser Health News reporter Phil Galewitz contributed to this article