COLUMN: Why we aren’t reporting the number of recovered patients

Published 5:25 pm Thursday, April 9, 2020

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The media as a whole gets a lot of criticism for the way it handles news. And before we get too deep, I’m not talking about Fox News, CNN, NBC News or any other 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news channel you watch on television.

I’m talking about Georgia media entities, especially local ones, who are doing their best to bring you updates on the COVID-19 crisis in your community.

Every day, I get on our Facebook page and update several graphics related to COVID-19. They show the number of cases statewide, the number of cases by county and a map of nearby counties to show how many cases are in LaGrange’s proximity. These include numbers on the total deaths, and at one point, they showed the number of hospitalizations, although that figure is not currently on our latest graphics.

Soon after those graphics are posted, we have someone who inevitably always asks the same question.

“Why don’t you report the recoveries? Why only the bad news?”

And a quirky commenter, someone raring to go with a criticism, will hop on and say “They don’t want to report that. There’s no money in that.”

It’s a frustrating circle, not because of the criticism, but because we are trying to get information on the recoveries (and total tests, etc.), and we’re running into a brick wall.

Every day the number of confirmed cases in Troup County goes up — it’s at 52 as I type this — and that number is only going to grow. We also know there are probably more cases out there than the 52 confirmed, but limited testing and mild symptoms mean that we don’t know the true number. Unfortunately, there have been three deaths in Troup County, but the majority of people aren’t dying.

People need to read the hopeful stories of people who are recovering from this virus. They need the truth, not just the doom and gloom, and we’re trying to report that.

For weeks, I have banged on my keyboard and called, trying to find out why there isn’t more information on people who have recovered.

The Georgia Department of Public Health does not track recoveries. GDPH focuses on activity histories and tracing contacts to limit the spread of the virus, but they do not track patients throughout their COVID-19 case. I think that’s understandable, especially when you consider the health department statewide is now over 10,000 cases statewide. Locally, Dr. Olugbenga Obasanjo, known as Dr. “O” and District 4 Public Health have been extremely informative and helpful when called upon.

WellStar West Georgia Medical Center, our local hospital, has been forthcoming at community roundtable discussions to keep the community informed. A few weeks ago, hospital President Coleman Foss talked about the number of people who had been discharged from the hospital and last week he discussed the number of people on ventilators at the hospital. They’ve always worked well with us.

Unfortunately, WellStar is requesting that all media inquiries go through its corporate office, which unfortunately means the end of the road for us.

We’ve contacted WellStar’s corporate media hotline five times for information over the last few weeks. The first three times we received a variation of the same public-relations quote, citing patient privacy and HIPAA laws. However, we weren’t asking for any patient identification, nor does HIPAA cover age (or age range) and gender of a patient.

The first email we sent asked if they could confirm if COVID-19 patients were being treated at WGMC. Their response was a confirmation that COVID-19 patients were being treated in the WellStar system, not at WGMC directly.

Our most recent communication with WellStar’s public relations line included the following questions:

  • How many COVID-19 patients has WellStar treated as of April 3?
  • How many of those patients have been discharged from the hospital?
  • Would any of those patients be considered recovered?
  • How many of those patients are currently on ventilators?
  • Gov. Kemp estimated Wednesday (April 1) that hospitals in Georgia would start to run out of beds around April 23, the expected peak of the virus in Georgia. Are current projections at WGMC anticipating that same challenge toward the end of the month?
  • If the answer to the previous question is yes, what can be done to prepare to that?
  • Have any staff members at WGMC been tested for COVID-19?
  • And to follow up on that, have any tested positive? Even without test results back/negative tests, have any been asked to self-quarantine due to exposure/symptoms?

I don’t have the space to list all eight responses here, but here are two sum that up the majority of the responses.

“At WellStar, the health and safety of our patients, team members, and communities is our number one priority. We can confirm that we are screening, testing, and treating patients diagnosed with COVID-19 across our hospitals and facilities, including at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center. Out of respect for our patients and privacy laws, we cannot comment on patient-related specifics regarding location, the number of patients being treated, or the condition of patients.”

“We cannot comment on patient-related specifics. Please direct your questions about presumed and confirmed cases to public health authorities. WellStar remains focused on partnering with the CDC, the Governor’s office, media and other health authorities to ensure that Georgians have the information they need to remain safe and healthy.”

A few weeks ago, I asked why WellStar won’t release any additional information, so that we can give people hope and remind them that not all of these cases end in death. I received a response pretty close to the two above.

Our local doctors, nurses and hospital staff at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center who are putting their lives on the line for all of us are community heroes, and we have written about many of them over the last few weeks. They deserve all of our support as they courageously battle this pandemic. There is no doubt about that. Everyone at WGMC deserves our support, and this writing is no way meant as a reflection of their work. I believe WGMC has been extremely open during this process, especially Foss’ role participating in the city’s roundtables. He’s under no obligation to participate in those.

People deserve to be informed about what’s going on. They need to know more than just the number of cases, which is misleading due to the lack of testing locally, and the total deaths. Other hospitals nearby are releasing tons of information, including East Alabama Medical Center just across the Alabama line. Three times a week they release how many people they’ve tested, their total number of positive tests, total number of confirmed cases and the counties where those cases are from.

They were also releasing total deaths by county, but they were ahead of the Alabama Department of Public Health, so they stopped to prevent confusion.

And guess what? Not a single patient we’re aware of has complained about their privacy, nor has there been a HIPAA violation in releasing that information.

We hope WellStar as a whole will take a cue from others and start releasing more information.

People deserve to know how many people are being tested, how many are being discharged and how many are considered “recovered.”

Right now, the only way we’ve been able to share that information is when locals who contracted and defeated COVID-19 stepped forward to tell their stories. We are thankful they did, as they provided more information than what we’re getting elsewhere.

We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, and we do not see how releasing the number of recoveries or discharged patients could be a bad thing. It gives a much clearer view of the situation than a climbing number of confirmed cases with no context.