Should the state disclose which Maine schools face disease outbreaks?

Source: U.S. CDC

Source: U.S. CDC

A little over a month ago, I asked the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to release the names of schools, camps and other sites where infectious diseases broke out during the last school year. The agency had just announced a record number of chickenpox cases among schoolchildren, but declined to identify the schools involved.

Based on the agency’s previous handling of similar requests — including refusing to name a southern Maine restaurant where diners were exposed to hepatitis A last November — my hopes weren’t high.

Last week I received a response from Maine CDC to my request, which I filed under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, the public “right to know” law. The agency again refused to provide the information, insisting the records are confidential under Maine law, with two exceptions:

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 12.46.54 PM

(Chapter 250 spells out how the state should respond to and publicize infectious disease outbreaks.)

Their legal argument is that releasing the information could potentially identify a child who contracted an infectious illness. Exactly how that could happen is beyond me. I asked only for school names, not for the names of individual children.

The agency typically releases this kind of data only at the county level. But it has made exceptions in the past, such as in October 2013, when it identified a Durham church where attendees were sickened by hepatitis A, and in April, naming the Kittery Outlet Malls as the site of a measles exposure. In May, Maine CDC released vaccination rates for nearly all of the state’s elementary schools.

The state saw a “public health benefit” to releasing the information in those cases of illness, because people could still take action to lessen their risk or ward off the disease (such as a vaccine for the churchgoers and avoiding the outlet malls). But with outbreaks of chickenpox and other diseases in schools, it sees “no public health purpose” to releasing the records I requested.

“The outbreaks have long since passed, and any symptoms related to chicken pox would have already occurred,” Maine CDC Director and COO Kenneth Albert said in a June 12 statement.

Kenneth Albert, director and chief operating officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo courtesy Maine DHHS.

Kenneth Albert, director and chief operating officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo courtesy Maine DHHS.

He also highlighted the availability of the school-by-school vaccination data among the reasons to shield outbreak information. But if that data benefits the public, wouldn’t the same logic apply to outbreaks?

“There is a concern that the names of the schools when paired with the recently released school-by-school immunization data may allow for the identification of an individual student which violates state and federal law,” Albert said in the statement.

Again, I’m unclear as to how that could occur. Identifying whether outbreaks are occurring in areas where parents are skipping vaccines for their kids seems to me of clear public benefit.

Schools typically notify parents of such outbreaks, so those most directly affected were likely aware of the chickenpox cases. But students, their families and school staff aren’t the only ones at risk. People with compromised immune systems — such as the elderly and those recovering from cancer treatment — also must be wary of outbreaks, among others.

Here’s how three groups, including one representing health care journalists, recommends public health officials handle such requests:

“Public health officials should strive to release as much information as possible, within the limits of the law. Withhold information only when there is a clearly justified reason to keep it confidential,” read the overarching principles of recommendations sponsored by the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

The same voluntary guidelines urge journalists to ask public health officials why they’re withholding information and explain their reasoning to readers. So there you have it.

The Portland Press Herald has similarly asked for and been denied disease outbreak data. The newspaper announced last week that it’s suing the state in an attempt to force it to release the names of schools where chickenpox outbreaks have occurred.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 4.07.43 PM

Now it’s up to the courts to decide what the public has a right to know.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.