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Health officials must be more transparent

As we all grapple with the rapidly changing landscape of the novel coronavirus pandemic, accurate information becomes more important than ever. State and local health officials must do a better job of communicating with the public than they have so far. That means releasing as much detailed information about the spread of the virus as possible, and about the ability of the state’s hospitals to respond to the demand for treatment.

We recognize the need to protect the privacy of those who contract COVID-19 or who are suspected of having the illness. But that can be accomplished while still releasing information that is meaningful to those sheltering in place or under self-quarantine.

The most recent breakdown in communication came to light Tuesday evening, when Jackson County health officials learned that a passenger who may have a case of COVID-19 traveled from Seattle to Medford on Delta flight #4124 — on March 18, a week ago today. That information should have come from the federal Centers for Disease Control, which investigates communicable disease exposures on airline flights.

As it happened, county officials here learned about it through a news release issued in Humboldt County, California. It’s not clear why Jackson County officials were not informed much sooner and by federal officials directly.

The reason for alerting local officials is to inform other passengers on that flight that they might have been exposed, and advise them to quarantine at home for 14 days. That has now taken place.

It’s alarming that local officials weren’t informed more quickly, but those officials also have failed to be as forthcoming with the public as they should.

Jackson County officials are announcing each new confirmed case of COVID-19 promptly, but without the kind of details that let the public evaluate how they might be personally affected.

For example, the third Jackson County case was announced Tuesday, but Jim Shames, Jackson County medical director, declined to reveal the patient’s gender, age or any other details.

In contrast, Lane County officials told residents on Tuesday that the county’s fifth positive case was a woman in her 40s who is medically stable and in isolation at home. The county’s third case was a school bus driver in his 50s who works for the 4J School District.

Lane County health officials and school district officials made that information public, as well as notifying all district families and directly contacting the families of all children who rode the bus on routes that employee drove.

None of those details identified the man, but they let the public know enough to be as informed as possible.

It’s difficult for people to take the situation seriously when all they are told is that some person tested positive for the virus. Knowing the patient’s age, gender and whether they have been hospitalized gives people a much better idea of what’s happening.

Details have been hard to come by at the state level as well. It was only after media outlets around the state raised questions that Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday directed the Oregon Health Authority to start releasing more information about new cases — 10-year age ranges, for instance, rather than lumping together everyone 55 and older. The OHA also is now disclosing how many ventilators, intensive care beds and hospital beds are available statewide every day, and how the state’s stockpile of respirators, masks, gowns and gloves is holding up.

Until Wednesday, the state’s ability to handle new cases was unknown to the public because of a lack of transparency from government.

Government at all levels is asking members of the public to help slow the spread of this virus by restricting their movements, activities and interactions. The public is far more likely to cooperate if they know they are being given as much information as possible.