No clear standard for NC counties in releasing COVID demographic data

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Some counties in North Carolina are sharing less information than others about their coronavirus cases.

A CBS17.com investigation found that the counties in the Triangle make less demographic information available to the public than some others do around the state.

Two of the state’s larger counties – Mecklenburg and Cumberland — release data categorizing their COVID-19 cases by ZIP code and race.

The racial disparity has become an even more pressing issue, with African Americans accounting for 39 percent of the COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services statistics. But U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate they make up just 22 percent of the state’s population.

At the state level, while Florida is now releasing its cases by ZIP code, North Carolina isn’t doing that yet. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen told CBS 17 on Thursday that the state is trying to balance privacy with transparency.

“I think North Carolinians have such an identity with their counties and I think that has given, that feels like the appropriate way to be reporting, because folks identify with their county,” Cohen said. “And so I will look at other states and what they’re reporting but we’re trying to do as much granularity for folks as we can while obviously still protecting people’s privacy as we go.”

With 385 cases, Wake County has the second-most in the state, behind only Mecklenburg County, and breaks them down by date, age and gender – but so far, that’s all.

Darshan Patel, manager of Wake County’s emergency operations center and its emergency management team leader, cited privacy concerns of the patients for declining to release further demographic data when cases first began arriving early last month.

Other counties across the state – including Randolph and Wilkes counties in central North Carolina – gave similar explanations for the data they chose to provide.

Patel says that could change in Wake County.

“Now that we are getting more cases and know there is community spread, we are working to collect additional data that we’ll be able to provide in the future with regard to race, ethnicity and ZIP codes,” he said.

He added that it’s difficult to collect those data “and to have one source of truth” because of the number of unknown cases and because different agencies have differing methods or criteria.

In Cumberland County, spokeswoman Sally Shutt said she received inquiries from elected officials and the public asking about locations. Health Director Jennifer Green began sharing ZIP code data – using ranges, not specific case counts – once the county had more than 50 cases.

“Our citizens are craving information about cases in our county and through aggregated demographic reporting, we can provide information and still protect confidentiality,” Shutt said.

Durham County provides less information about its 155 cases — and only updates its data set weekly, with the most recent update coming April 2. They disclose only the average age — 40 — and that 57 percent of its cases are male, with spokeswoman Alecia Smith also citing privacy concerns.

“At this time, we refrain from sharing data that may make cases more easily identifiable or lead to the stigmatization of certain demographic groups,” Smith said. “As the COVID-19 case count grows and cases become increasingly widespread within Durham County, more information may be made available on the dashboard in future updates.”

And the U.S. Department of Defense said it has stopped releasing the number of coronavirus cases at military installations – including at Fort Bragg – due to security concerns, but is reporting them to local health officials.

Many of the counties in the CBS 17 viewing area – including Franklin, Chatham and Orange counties – link to the DHHS dashboard. That site breaks down COVID-19 cases across the state by age, race and ethnicity, time and reporting hospital, and also gives total counts of cases and deaths for each county.

Johnston and Harnett counties list similar data categories as Durham County, and while Sampson County releases the total number of tests – positive, negative and pending – it does not disclose any demographic data.

“Because some of our communities are small, we don’t want to release data that could be reverse-engineered and possibly compromise patient privacy,” Johnston County Health Director Marilyn Pearson said.

Granville Vance Public Health provides a total count of cases in both counties, but without any other details. Similarly, Moore County publishes a web page with its confirmed cases and deaths but no additional information.

Neither Lee nor Nash counties posted any coronavirus-related data on their health department websites.

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