If someone in Massachusetts dies from Eastern equine encephalitis, you might learn their age and sex, and the county where they lived. But you won't know from state officials what city or town the victim called home. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health refuses to release that information, in spite of how important that detail would be to the public.
The Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Brockton, sought the records from the DPH that would say where the three people who died from EEE in 2019 lived. The DPH turned down the records request twice, so the paper appealed to the state Supervisor of Public Records, who appears to be siding with the press. The supervisor, Rebecca Murray, has twice ordered DPH to respond to the request, adding in November, "it is unclear why the department cannot disclose the towns of the victims."
DPH argues that a person's town is exempt from disclosure because it is an "intimate detail of a highly personal nature," something the public records law allows as an exemption. But releasing only county-specific information serves no useful purpose. With the scant information DPH releases you would never know if the person who contracted the fatal virus lived at the other end of Essex County, or across the street. And that lack of information doesn't serve the public at all.
Health officials generally release information when tests of mosquitoes in a specific community turn up evidence of EEE or West Nile virus, another pathogen. That information puts people on the alert to take precautions. But omitting the home community of a victim of either virus goes counter to the concept that people are best equipped when they get credible information from experts.
This issue is even more important today with news about the growing number of people ill from the coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of people worldwide, though mostly in China.
When the goal of making information public is to inform and equip people so they can stay safe, state health officials should reconsider their secretive stance. It's in the public interest.