Pennsylvania deserves answers: Free the COVID-19 data

State Rep. Kate Klunk
Rep. Kate Klunk, of the 169th House District, speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

For months during the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard from the Wolf administration, namely the governor and former Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, that we must trust the science … trust the data. And I fully agree. Science and data must drive policy, whether it be in response to a global pandemic or other bills before the General Assembly.

Despite the administration’s mantra, it took extraordinary strides to shield important COVID-19 data from a trusted nonpartisan arm of the legislative branch of state government. I, of course, must ask, “Why?”

Here’s the scoop. In fall of 2020, the General Assembly unanimously passed my House Resolution 1087, which called for the Legislative Budget and Finance Commission to collect data and complete a report on COVID-19 data. Fast forward to nearly a year later and the LBFC was finally able to release its report.

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However, the report has a big asterisk because the Wolf administration fought tooth and nail to keep certain data from LBFC researchers. So much so that the Wolf administration attempted to claim the LBFC wasn’t one of the many “agencies of government” and that the review report did not meet “research purposes.”

In short, a nonpartisan research arm of the Legislature was denied access to documents needed to complete a report that was supported by every member, Democrats and Republicans, of the House of Representatives.

It’s mind boggling to me that a branch of government would try to deny a government entity that routinely examines data and performs research information it needs to complete its task.

Throughout the pandemic, there have been numerous occasions where discrepancies existed in the information published by the Department of Health. This includes COVID-19 being listed as a factor of death even though the death of a person was the direct result of something else; thousands of COVID-19 positive cases removed from the daily totals; days where there were significant statistical anomalies in the data; and examples of  commingling of data. Finally, we saw serious lag times in the reporting of COVID-19 positive cases in our state’s nursing homes.

It was my hope the report would clear up the many questions so many Pennsylvanians had and continue to have. Unfortunately, the Wolf administration squashed that hope when it prevented the LBFC from fully doing its job.

I believe the LBFC best sums up the report, and the circumstances surrounding it, in the last paragraph of the report.

“In the end, we are not disputing that under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s/National Center for Health Statistics’ guidance these 1,596 deaths (representing approximately 9% of all COVID-19 deaths) may be related to COVID-19. However, we believe it is important to distinguish these deaths as either being from Part I (the cause of death) or Part II (the health condition that contributed to death) of the death certificate and not leaving the public or other users to guess.”

The public shouldn’t have to guess. Especially when Gov. Tom Wolf has all too often preached from the gospel of government transparency. Behind every COVID-19 data point is a Pennsylvanian and a family. Pennsylvanians deserve to know the real data so they can make informed health care decisions.