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KPBS Joining Voice Of San Diego In Suit Against County For COVID Outbreak Information

The San Diego County Administration Building downtown is shown in this undate...

Photo by Alison St John

Above: The San Diego County Administration Building downtown is shown in this undated photo.

KPBS is joining the news outlet Voice of San Diego in a public records lawsuit against San Diego County that seeks information relating to COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the county.

During the more than six months since the pandemic took hold in San Diego, county health officials have provided little information regarding outbreaks, only identifying locations with broad terms like "bar/restaurant," "business" or "social club." They have repeatedly denied requests from KPBS journalists and others for more detailed information.

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

Voice of San Diego sued the county at the end of July after officials did not comply with a reporter’s request for epidemiological reports the county sends to the state. The reports include specific locations of outbreaks, when they occurred, how many people were infected and their demographic information.

Reported by Claire Trageser

Without the more detailed information, residents can’t make informed decisions about the relative risk of engaging in activities like eating out, Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis said.

"We keep seeing 'restaurant/bar,' 'restaurant/bar,' 'restaurant/bar' in their descriptions of these outbreaks, but are those outbreaks happening outside? Is it the kitchen staff?" Lewis said. "That's a fundamental question to our activities as humans. If we find out the virus spreads really well on outdoor patios at restaurants, that will influence my decisions about whether to go to an outdoor restaurant."

This information has become even more important now that the San Diego Unified School District has said it won't physically reopen schools until outbreaks in the county fall below an average of seven a week, Lewis said.

"If that's going to be such a key factor in such a key part of our lives, I think we deserve to know more about it," he said."There's also an equity issue. What if the data revealed a vast inequity about where these infections are happening and who's being infected."

KPBS decided to join the lawsuit after repeatedly hearing from readers, listeners and viewers that they wanted more information about COVID outbreaks, said Suzanne Marmion, KPBS's director of news and editorial strategy.

"We understand the county is working really hard to keep the public safe, and that's in our interest in this case also," she said. "These epidemiological records are already the exact same records they're gathering. We can take this information and report out specific locations of outbreaks so people can have vital public safety information."

Marmion said the information would also enhance public safety by holding public officials and businesses accountable.

"If we have outbreaks that happen more than once in a location, then this is where the public depends on news organizations and journalists to let them know," she said. "It gives an opportunity for enforcement, or to solve a specific problem."

A San Diego County spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit, instead referring KPBS to an op-ed co-signed by county health officials in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The op-ed, which was in response to a Union-Tribune editorial that urged the county to release the records, says the county doesn't think outbreak locations should be public information because that could make businesses fearful about reporting outbreaks to health officials.

"For example, with restaurants, the county works with operators to make sure they are following appropriate public health guidelines," the op-ed reads. "When community outbreaks are confirmed, county disease assessment teams are deployed. We see no advantage in publicly shaming a business or organization for doing the right thing and working with us to help rein in this pandemic."

The news organizations understand the county’s concerns, but argue that its refusal to provide the records violates both the letter and spirit of the California Public Records Act. In short, the overall public’s right to know is far more important than the considerations of one business or organization.

Also, the county’s refusal to provide the records is not consistent with its past practices regarding infectious disease outbreaks.

For example, during the city of San Diego’s hepatitis A outbreak in 2017, the county issued a public notice that diners at the World Famous restaurant in Pacifc Beach might have been exposed to the disease. County officials went so far as to list specific dates and times of potential exposure.

Lewis said he'd be willing to negotiate over redacting names of people or businesses, "but they won't even have that conversation."

The county is scheduled to respond to the lawsuit in the first week of September. Lewis said it could take months before hearings are scheduled, and he expects the county to fight releasing the information instead of settling on a compromise.

He said having KPBS join the lawsuit puts additional pressure on the county and shows there is public interest in getting more information.

"We have an image of being feisty or combative, but this is a sincere effort to get as much information as possible," Lewis said. "To have a partner like KPBS come on board adds to the pressure from the public's point of view that something needs to be done."

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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