Brown pivots on COVID-19 death toll reporting after political backlash

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Hours after the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) decided to water down its daily reports on COVID-19 deaths, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday evening she would add them back in.

On Wednesday, state health officials abruptly announced they would no longer include crucial information concerning deceased COVID-19 patients including their gender, county, date tested positive, and place of death.

OHA Director Patrick Allen claimed the decision was based on the agency’s plan to conserve its human resources and its interest in streamlining daily death toll numbers for national medical databases.

By the end of Friday, Brown decided by tweet that she would see to it the agency included such information back into its death reports.

“In a pandemic, Oregonians must have access to timely info to keep themselves & their families safe,” Brown tweeted. “I have directed OHA Oregon to disclose all data on COVID-19 deaths weekly, including the date the individual tested positive, their age, location & underlying health conditions.”

Brown added that the daily data updates will also include reported deaths by age bracket, on a daily and weekly basis.

The Center Square was denied a public records request early Friday morning concerning six deaths reported by the OHA on Thursday seeking such details.

In its denial, an OHA public records coordinator claimed that under ORS 433.008 (concerning confidentiality for public health and safety disclosures) there was “no exception” by which it could provide the information requested.

The Center Square is awaiting a reply back by the agency following the governor’s changes.

Brown’s pivot follows a wave of backlash by Oregonian press most of whom had requested similar information concerning COVID-19 deaths in the state.

They included the Oregonian’s Brad Schmidt, who was among a number of vocal reporters on Twitter who criticized the OHA’s decision.

“So, here’s the question, state lawmakers: Does OHA Oregon really get to keep this information secret from the public? It’s your law.”

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, was among the state lawmakers who called on Brown to restore the state’s regular death toll reporting.

She was joined by the Oregon Legislature’s Republican minority which looked to capitalize on Brown’s prior defense of the OHA’s changes.

On Thursday, Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, painted Brown’s death toll reporting decision as a cover-up in the making.

“In order to maintain trust and preserve transparency, Governor Brown and OHA must reverse yesterday’s decision and commit to providing clear, consistent and timely data in all categories moving forward,” Drazan said.

Brown did not offer word on whether any COVID-19 deaths reported between Wednesday and Friday would be updated. As of Friday night, the agency’s most recently reported deaths from Friday were listed only by age group.

On Friday, the OHA reported eight new deaths from the pandemic and 976 new cases, bringing the state’s historic caseload to 141,729 and the death toll to 1,938 people.

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