Colorado news orgs urge Polis to increase transparency around COVID-19 spread

The Indy among 60 news orgs to sign on to letter asking for more detailed pandemic data

The following letter was sent to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Friday, Apr. 10, 2020:

Dear Gov. Polis,

We, the undersigned journalism organizations, want to thank you and your staff for your fact-driven daily briefings during the ongoing COVID-19 public health and economic crises, and your acknowledgement that the state’s news outlets are “essential services.”

Because of your actions to date, we know you agree that government transparency and freedom of the press are indispensable pillars of our self-governing democracy, and that transparency and access to information are especially critical during a public health crisis.

We write today to request that you take a few additional actions that we feel would greatly help to ensure journalists throughout the state are best equipped to tell the stories that must be told. Our primary objectives are to keep the public informed, to accurately chronicle the events of this unprecedented period – to write the “first rough draft of history” – and to report on how government officials, local business and civic leaders, and communities are responding:

Please urge state and local health officials to regularly provide, without the requirement of open records requests, detailed datasets on COVID-19 cases, deaths and testing.

While Colorado provides summaries of cases, Florida publishes data on each death and case, with fields of information such as county, age, gender, when the case was counted, when the death was counted, whether the person had traveled and if the person had contact with another confirmed case. Florida’s online dashboard provides cases by ZIP code as well as testing information by county. In Washington state, counties provide information on specific facilities with outbreaks. But in Colorado, reporters have had to file Colorado Open Records Act requests and contact individual facilities to compile a still-incomplete picture of outbreaks and deaths at senior care facilities.

Analyzing case-level data allows journalists to find trends and clusters. For COVID-19-related deaths, it would be helpful if the state made readily available fields including but not limited to: age, gender, race, ethnicity, county, ZIP code and/or census tract, when the person died, the date the death was publicly reported, and if, when and where the person was hospitalized. For COVID-19 positive cases, it would be helpful if the state made readily available fields including but not limited to: age, gender, race, ethnicity, county, ZIP code and/or census tract, the date the person tested positive, the date the positive test was reported by the state, whether the person was hospitalized, and whether the clinic processing the tests is public or private.

We also ask that agencies provide, without the requirement of an open records request, reports and modeling data prepared by experts for public health officials as well as data on hospital bed and equipment capacity by facility and location and the estimated need for beds and equipment.

If public records requests are necessary to release any information, please urge state and local health officials to respond as soon as possible and waive or reduce research-and-retrieval charges so that barriers to obtaining public records about the pandemic aren’t an issue.

Please urge all public officials in Colorado to retain emails, text messages, messages from platforms such as Slack and Zoom recordings related to the crisis, so that accurate chronologies of their collective responses can be obtained and recorded. These primary records will become particularly important in the future, as journalists and social science researchers attempt to reconstruct this chaotic period to determine what we can learn from the response.

Please consider allowing a pool reporter to attend, either in person or virtually, meetings with state and local health department officials and the governor. In this period of isolation, where public meetings are extremely limited, our goal is to encourage transparency wherever possible. If there is a compelling reason to keep a meeting private, please share an explanation.

We have seen that by setting policies or making statements that give clear guidance to public officials and health care leaders across the state, the Governor’s Office can set expectations that bring order and leadership in this time of crisis. We urge you to consider adopting the above recommendations, which we believe would lead to increasingly productive relationships between public officials at all levels and the local journalists across Colorado whose communities they serve.

Our goal is simply to make sure journalists throughout Colorado can provide the public with information about COVID-19 – and governments’ response to it – that is as accurate and complete as possible.

Respectfully,

Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association, Colorado News Collaborative, Akron News-Reporter, Ark Valley Voice, The Aspen Times, Aurora Sentinel, BizWest, Broomfield Enterprise, Brush News-Tribune, The Burlington Record, Canon City Daily Record, The Center Square, Chalkbeat Colorado, Coloradoan (Fort Collins), Colorado Community Media, Colorado Daily (Boulder), Colorado Hometown Weekly (East Boulder County), The Colorado Independent, Colorado News, Colorado Politics, Colorado Public Radio, Colorado Springs Business Journal, Colorado Springs Independent, The Colorado Sun, The Cortez Journal, Daily Camera (Boulder), Denverite, The Denver Post, The Durango Herald, Estes Park Trail Gazette, 5280, The Fort Morgan Times, Fresh Water News, The Gazette (Colorado Springs), Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, Greater Park Hill News, The Greeley Tribune, High Country News, I-70 Scout & Eastern Colorado News, Journal-Advocate (Sterling), Julesburg Advocate, KGNU Community Radio, KCNC-TV, KDNK Community Radio (Carbondale), KMGH-TV, KOAA-TV, KUSA-TV, The Lamar Ledger, Law Week Colorado, MetroWest Newspapers (Brighton), National Freedom of Information Coalition, Ouray County Plaindealer, The Pagosa Springs SUN, The Pine River Times, Public News Service, The Pueblo Chieftain, Reporter-Herald (Loveland), Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Rio Blanco Herald Times, Rocky Mountain Public Media, Society of Professional Journalists – Colorado Pro Chapter, Times-Call (Longmont); Vail Daily, Westword (Denver)

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