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Why San Diego County keeps outbreak locations a secret

Unlike San Diego, LA County reveals outbreak spots
Why San Diego County won't reveal the names of businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks
Posted at 6:29 PM, Sep 04, 2020

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Since the start of the pandemic, there have been more than 240 community outbreaks in San Diego County. But despite calls from the public, county leaders continue to keep the exact locations secret.

After public records requests from news outlets, the county released a list this week showing all the confirmed outbreaks until Sept. 1.

The list reveals one outbreak at a San Diego business led to 175 infections. Another outbreak at a Chula Vista adult day care was linked to three deaths. But the addresses and business names are redacted.

Many ABC 10News viewers have said they would like detailed information about the location of outbreaks to better inform decisions on where they visit.

The county has resisted those calls, citing several reasons.

The first reason has to do with contact tracing. County leaders say tracers often encounter people who are reluctant to provide information out of concern it will harm their business or organization.

They say it’s useful tracers are able to assure people the business names will be kept confidential.

“Contact tracing only works when those that are being interviewed are completely honest and forthcoming with relevant information,” the county wrote in a letter attached to the public records request.

“Releasing the names of these locations and the addresses will have a chilling effect on the open communication necessary to ensure the Public Health Officer is able to effectively combat active outbreaks,” the county added.

Los Angeles County does it differently. Health officials there post the names and addresses of all outbreak locations at workplaces, food, and retail stores.

An outbreak is defined as three or more cases among members of different households who visited the same location within a 14-day period.

San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said LA’s approach is unique.

“LA does not have the capacity to do the contact tracing investigations the way that we do them,” she said in a press conference last month. “If you call any other health department in Southern California, no other health department does what LA does.”

At times, San Diego County has identified the locations of outbreaks, including announcing in late July an outbreak at a fitness facility called The Gym in Pacific Beach.

At the time, The Gym was defying public health orders, but has since gotten permission to reopen.

San Diego County has also revealed locations of outbreaks from other diseases.

In 2017, the county identified a Pacific Beach restaurant where there was a Hepatitis A outbreak. It regularly names schools with cases of tuberculosis.

“We would release or have a press release related to an outbreak if there was additional information that the public would need to take actions,” Dr. Wooten said.

County officials say they only reveal locations when they need help identifying people who may be exposed.

In many cases, by the time an outbreak is confirmed, the county says the active threat is over.

That’s because on average, the list reveals it takes 25 days to confirm the presence of three or more cases.

“In most instances, the outbreak location information is reported and added to this list well after the outbreak has already taken place, so releasing the names now would do little to protect the public, especially when the business is cooperating with the Public Health Officer, exposed individuals have been notified, and measures have been taken to mitigate the risk of an additional outbreak,” the county said in its letter explaining the redactions in the public records request.

Then there’s a privacy argument. County leaders say that in some cases revealing locations would make it easy to determine the people who had fallen ill.

Finally, Dr. Wooten said she doesn’t want the public to get the impression that the virus is only contained in locations where outbreaks have occurred.

When there's an outbreak of another disease, cases tend to be very localized. COVID-19 is different, she said.

“The virus is widespread. People should not get false complacency,” said Dr. Wooten.