May 27, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Governor Kelly ignores Majority Leader’s COVID transparency request

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Don’t expect additional COVID transparency from the State of Kansas any time soon.

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, (R-Wichita), said in a State Finance Council meeting chaired by Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, that getting information from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on the COVID-19 pandemic is “like pulling teeth.”

Hawkins said he had asked for information from KDHE early in the pandemic and it took months to receive it.

“I asked for some information in April,” he said. “And it wasn’t until three or four weeks ago that it finally showed up on their website. So I guess they finally got around to it.”

Hawkins made the comments after noting a Kansas news organization — in fact, the Sentinel — had asked for COVID data and been repeatedly denied.

Hawkins noted that policy was being made on the basis of the data KDHE collects, but because of Kelly’s administration recalcitrance to comply with COVID transparency requests, Kansans are unaware exactly what data is being used.

“Kansans deserve to know all the facts if they’re going to be asked to sacrifice the way they’re being asked to sacrifice,” he said.

Kelly, a Democrat, made no response — of any kind — and simply moved on with the meeting.

The Request

The Sentinel, and its parent company Kansas Policy Institute, nearly two months ago asked for records of all hospitalizations due to COVID-19 on a county-by-county basis from March 1 to June 4, and the total number of COVID-19-related deaths in the same time frame, also by county. Additionally, there was a request for historic county-level data on hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

The Kansas Open Records Act requires subject agencies to respond to a request within three working days of receiving the request. Agencies must produce the documents, deny the request or state more time will be required to fulfill it, and provide an estimated timeline to do so.

The Denial

The Kelly Administration denied the county-by-county death numbers, citing privacy concerns. The excuse was that if there was only one death in a county, records could be cross-checked to reveal a name.

The Administration also denied the historic data request based on a loophole in the Kansas Open Record Act.

“The records you are requesting are a unique data request and would require KDHE to create records to respond,” the Administration responded. “As KORA does not require a public agency to create a record in order to respond to requests for information, your request will be closed.”

KDHE also said that under normal circumstances they would be able to produce the data but “lacked the staff time to do so.” KPI and the Sentinel offered to accept the entire database and sort through it, but that request was also denied.

The Reality

However, it turns out there was simply no reason to deny the request based on privacy concerns, as the Sentinel and Kansas Policy Institute found cumulative county data online, sourced to Wikipedia and the New York Times, which is sourced from state and county websites each day for all 50 states.  The Sentinel is now tracking the county data periodically.

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