Oregon state Sen. Mike Dembrow, D-Portland, has been noisy about the need for the Oregon Health Authority to be transparent about the COVID-19 data it releases.
His bill, Senate Bill 719, would ensure that transparency. And though the bill should have long since passed the Legislature, it would seem to be in good hands. It’s in the committee Dembrow chairs, joint ways and means.
The central premise of Oregon’s public records law is that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. Meetings are open to the public. Government documents and the data behind them should be open to the public if requested.
As good as Oregon’s law is, it teems with exceptions. One is for public health investigations, Oregon Revised Statutes 433.008. It reads in part: “information obtained by the Oregon Health Authority or a local public health administrator in the course of an investigation of a reportable disease or disease outbreak is confidential and is exempt from disclosure.” So when journalists and others have requested information about testing rates by ZIP code for instance, the request was denied.
ORS 433.008 doesn’t mean that the information must be denied to the public. It means it can be denied. And when government can deny the public information, it often does.
Dembrow’s bill simply requires the Oregon Health Authority or local public health administrator to release aggregate information about reportable disease investigations that does not identify individual cases or sources of information after receiving a public records request. This would not only apply to COVID-19. It would also apply to salmonella and E. coli outbreaks.
State officials are trying to encourage Oregonians to get vaccinated and continue to obey COVID restrictions and guidelines. It would send the wrong signal for the Legislature to now tell Oregonians: “Let’s keep the secrecy” and not pass this bill.