When the coronavirus arrived in Oklahoma in March 2020, I set out to cover the state’s response with a focus on accountability.
The stakes were high; the coronavirus pandemic has killed thousands of Oklahomans.
Sunshine Week, an annual focus on access to public records and open government, comes a year after the state reported its first coronavirus death. Oklahoma’s public records laws are designed to guarantee our right to access public information and meetings, allowing the public to view decision making and hold the government accountable.
The coronavirus pandemic sparked a burst of public data from Oklahoma state agencies, such as a COVID-19 dashboard, daily hospitalization reports and more recently, vaccination counts.
The pandemic also brought a great deal of uncertainties and questions as people changed how they lived their lives. The dashboard answered broad questions about the pandemic’s path, but it left many issues unanswered. There was a heightened need for information to help people make informed decisions, but also for government accountability.
Not long after Oklahoma confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the virus started to appear in nursing homes, which house those most at-risk for severe illness and death. People were worried about loved ones living in the facilities, but the state wouldn’t say which homes had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In late March of 2020, I requested data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health on what nursing homes had COVID-19 cases or were suspected of having viral spread. Agency officials wouldn’t release a list but only gave me a number — eight facilities had cases or were suspected of having cases. The agency cited privacy laws in its denial.
Meanwhile, in a long-term care and nursing facility in Washington, at least 25 people associated with the facility had died after being infected with COVID-19 and many others had been hospitalized.
Oklahomans, frustrated and scared, called for the information to be disclosed. About a week after the initial story, officials released the data to The Frontier and to the public.
“We are releasing this information on long term care facilities in the hope that it can provide relief for those with family members with loved ones who reside there,” a spokeswoman told me at the time.
The pandemic also warrants a closer eye on state spending.
In the midst of the scramble to secure life-saving protective equipment to respond to the pandemic, state officials spent millions of dollars, sometimes bidding against other states.
Though government contracts are public under Oklahoma law, health department officials declined to say who the state was doing business with, arguing that the information was made private by an executive order from Gov. Kevin Stitt.
There had been reports of questionable transactions and fraud across the country using taxpayer funds.
Hours after my story was published, the agency released the records.
From the outset of the pandemic, I aimed to track where the disease was spreading and who it was hurting the most. Part of tracking that was analyzing the death toll. However, for much of the pandemic, the state Health Department released only limited data.
Earlier this year, the Health Department released data that detailed the dates of when Oklahomans died from the virus. Previous to that, the state only released data on the dates fatalities were confirmed or when the deceased individual became sick or tested positive for COVID-19. The lack of data made it difficult to measure the virus’ trajectory.
I started to request that data from the Health Department in July 2020, but officials denied my request citing patient privacy laws known as HIPAA. They finally released the information following a public records request in January.
Understanding the death toll is vital in interpreting the pandemic’s impact on the state.
As the state continues to roll out the coronavirus vaccine, it will be important to watch who has access to the shots and whether anyone is being left out. Access to public information will be key.
At its core, the pandemic is an accountability story.