House bill requires health depts. to report COVID-19 data it already reports

By: - June 10, 2020 12:50 am

Gov. Mike DeWine is seen during a COVID-19 press conference. (Screenshot courtesy OhioChannel)

Is it that the Ohio Department of Health is deliberately withholding some COVID-19 information from the public?

Or, is it that the department does present the information, but does so in a “one-sided” and “convoluted” way?

That depends on which supporter of House Bill 624 is talking. But all supporters agree on this view: The state of Ohio is not telling the full story about COVID-19.

To that end, HB 624 seeks to force health officials to report specified virus data points to the public. 

Several legislators within the Ohio House’s State and Local Government Committee have acknowledged that many of the data points named in the bill are, in fact, presently made available. Nevertheless, the bill was favorably reported out of committee on Tuesday and heads to the full House chamber. 

State Rep. Diane Grendell, R-Chesterland, is the bill’s main sponsor. In committee testimony last week, she said Ohio Department of Health (ODH) data “has been one-sided and woefully incomplete.”

“Only the data that promotes fear and despair ⁠— confirmed cases, hospitalizations, deaths ⁠— has been reported by the (ODH),” Grendell claimed.

Grendell offered several examples of other data points she believes tell “the other half of the story.”

State Rep. Diane Grendell, R-Chesterland

One is the number of people who tested negative for COVID-19. ODH does report the total number of people tested for COVID-19 in Ohio, and also reports the number of positive cases. Determining the number of negative tests requires simple subtraction.

The same is true for Grendell’s desire to learn the number of confirmed cases that did not require medical care. ODH reports the total number of cases and the number of hospitalizations, with subtraction again being all that’s needed.

Grendell and others say they also want to know the number of deaths not involving nursing homes and prisons. The state provides daily updates of total cases and deaths involving both nursing homes and prisons. Subtracting those numbers from the overall numbers would provide the answer. 

Others have criticized that ODH data lags behind the actual instances of positive tests and deaths. When ODH provides the number of “new” deaths each day, it is referring to the number of deaths reported to the department within the past 24 hours, not necessarily the number of people who actually died in that time span.

Information on testing and deaths are first collected on a county-by-county level. Local health officials then report their information to the state government. ODH Director Dr. Amy Acton has acknowledged these delays, but said her department works to provide timely information as to the presence of COVID-19 in Ohio. 

A review of supporting testimony for HB 624 shows a wide array of viewpoints about what they believe ODH is reporting. 

Heather Groves told the committee she believes Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton use “scare tactics” and have “cherry picked” the data they want Ohioans to know. Elizabeth Talbot claims the state uses “undisclosed or convoluted data” to issue COVID-19 orders. Laurel Ljubi said “certain information is important and is missing.”  

Jack Windsor, a Republican ally who has written about the virus for a Mansfield TV station’s website, provided proponent testimony as well. He repeated Rep. Grendell’s claim that ODH data is “woefully incomplete.”

Windsor presented a different picture minutes later while fielding questions from Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake.

“A lot of the data is available on the website, and I commend the state for all of the data that they have collected … but it’s not information that is presented clearly and consistently to Ohioans on a daily basis,” Windsor said.

Greenspan asked about this disparity in claims:

The bill, as approved by the committee, would require local health officials to report each COVID-19 test administered (regardless of result) to the ODH. The state would be required to release COVID-19 case information “in the form of a chart or table” broken down by zip code and with infection rates for “congregate settings.” Any modeling projections would have to be released with “supporting information and documents, as well as a margin of error.”

The bill can now be considered by the full Ohio House of Representatives. It also requires passage by the Ohio Senate and a signature from the governor before it can become law.

While the original bill text declared an emergency — meaning it would be enacted immediately rather than 90 days after being signed into law — an amendment during Tuesday’s committee hearing took out that emergency clause. 

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.