ZACHARY: Transparency should not be polarizing

DomeLight by Jim Zachary 

Openness in government has never been more important than it is now. 

Everyone is at risk during the current health crisis, and the public has every right and need to know as much as possible about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Georgia public health officials release a lot of data but much of that information lacks clarity. 

Data is of little value to the general public if it is not provided in clear and understandable ways.

You should not have to be an epidemiologist in order to make informed decisions about your own health and well-being. 

Dr. Ben Lopman is an epidemiologist, and even he finds the way state health officials talk about COVID-19 confusing and bewildering. 

Lopman sat on a panel of experts in a live streamed event hosted by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and moderated by GFAF President Emeritus Richard Griffiths. 

Lopman indicated the state could be much more clear, transparent, in the way the numbers are presented and in the completeness of data sets provided to the general public. 

The public largely wants to know how many people are getting the coronavirus, how many are hospitalized, how many die, what is the capacity for treatment at their local hospital, where does contact tracing indicate patients contracted the virus, what places did those people frequent, where do they work and what places should be avoided. 

There is also confusion because the health department presents one set of numbers, a hospital reports its hospitalizations, recoveries and deaths and then the governor’s office has its own spin on the data, ostensibly presented in ways to make the state’s response to the pandemic look good.

To be clear, Georgia has not done a great job of mitigating COVID-19. 

The state opened the economy too soon. 

Businesses were reopened in exactly the wrong order, allowing high contact business such as hair salons, massage therapists and tattoo parlors to open first. 

The public has not effectively practiced social distancing and the wearing of masks is not the norm anywhere in our state. 

The proof of these failures is in the numbers, the data. 

The state admitted it made a mistake by including antibody tests in the total number of Georgia residents who had tested positive for active novel coronavirus and corrected that error, while blaming the Centers for Disease Control. But that is just one example of how confusing the information being released by the state has been. 

With around 2,750 deaths and 72K cases of COVID-19, the health crisis is going from bad to worse in Georgia and no amount of spin by the governor’s office can change what the unvarnished data is telling us.

 In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has now said that cases are so under reported that the actual numbers could be 10 times higher than official counts released by the government. 

Around half a million people have died from COVID-19 with more than 120,000 dying in the United States, the largest number of deaths in the world. 

State leaders must stop trying to make this crisis look better. 

The governor’s office just needs to stop telling us what a great job they are doing. 

This is not about politics, not about re-election and not about looking good. It is about saving lives. 

In order to save lives, Gov. Brian Kemp needs to encourage cities and counties across the state to use the science, the data, to make sound decisions and aggressively mitigate the spread.

Local restrictions are essential when cases surge and that must include orders to wear masks in public, restrictions on public gatherings and yes — when necessary — either limit capacity at local businesses — or order temporary closures. 

The alternative is to just sit and watch the numbers climb, more people getting sick and more people dying of COVID-19. 

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

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