Ga. health officials won’t say where the U.K. variant strain has surfaced

Mutated COVID-19 is believed to be 30% more deadly than common strain, U.K. officials say
Drive-through COVID-19 testing began this week at First Baptist Church Woodstock. (Contributed)

Drive-through COVID-19 testing began this week at First Baptist Church Woodstock. (Contributed)

At least six cases of a mutant, more contagious COVID-19 strain from the United Kingdom have been confirmed in Georgia, but Georgians have no way of knowing if it’s spreading in their own communities.

That’s because the state Department of Public Health, which has been tracking the new variant, refuses to say which cities or counties have had people infected. The department contends revealing that could lead to discovery of the names of patients, violating their privacy rights.

Several other states, however, are identifying counties or cities where variant cases have been detected.

The state’s refusal to inform the public about a potentially deadly threat has drawn strong rebukes from government transparency advocates, who say DPH is misusing state and federal laws to withhold vital information, even as Georgians suffer through another devastating wave of the virus.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously reported that at least one variant strain case occurred in Cobb County, based on comments by the district health director of Cobb & Douglas Public Health Department during a virtual town hall meeting last week. But this week the state health department rejected the AJC’s written request for a breakdown of the locations of the other five Georgia cases.

“It is more than likely that this variant and others are circulating in Georgia just as they are across the country,” spokeswoman Nancy Nydam responded in an email.

DPH’s lead attorney, Jennifer Dalton, later told the AJC that because Georgia has so few cases, both the state Open Records Act and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, forbid the department from releasing information any lower than the statewide level.

Richard T. Griffiths, president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, called her legal argument “rubbish,” since it would be impossible to identify a specific COVID-19 patient based on a city or county alone.

Griffiths said the state should release information at a more granular level than what the AJC requested — such as by hospital, school, nursing home, or place of business — which would also be legal.

“HIPAA is about individual privacy,” Griffiths said. “It is not about general public health information that people can use to make rational decisions during a pandemic.”

Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey gives reporters an update on the COVID-19 vaccine at the state Capitol last month. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

The mutant threat

The emergence of several new variant strains around the globe has intensified the Biden administration’s race to vaccinate hundreds of millions of Americans.

But doses are limited, and the process of administering first and second shots in the U.S. has been sluggish and disorganized, leaving eligible seniors struggling to navigate overwhelmed phone lines and crashing websites only to find inconsistent or inaccurate information.

In the midst of the confusion, Georgia Public Health reported the first confirmed case of the highly-infectious U.K. strain in early January, describing the patient as an 18-year-old male who hadn’t traveled outside the country.

Known as B.1.1.7, the U.K. strain is believed to be 50% to 70% more contagious and 30% deadlier than the common SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to British health officials. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the new strain could become dominant in the U.S. by March, leading to more infections, more hospital beds filled, and ultimately more people dying.

At the state Capitol Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp acknowledged uncertainty about the variants and said they could threaten the slight improvement in COVID-19 hospitalizations the state has seen over the past three weeks.

“Much like the early days of the pandemic, there are many unanswered questions regarding how deadly, and how easily transmissible, they may be,” Kemp told reporters. “We cannot take the improving numbers that we’re seeing for granted.”

The CDC’s website currently shows 23 other states having cases of the U.K. strain, with the highest figures in Florida, at 92 cases, and California, at 90 cases.

Those numbers are likely a vast undercount, however, because only a tiny fraction of COVID tests are analyzed for variant strains. The surveillance network relies on a patchwork of universities, commercial labs and state public health agencies, with the U.S. reportedly conducting genetic sequencing on fewer than 1% of samples, a fraction of what the U.K. does.

Vaccine doses are limited, and the process of administering first and second shots in the U.S. has been sluggish and disorganized, leaving eligible seniors struggling to navigate overwhelmed phone lines and crashing websites only to find inconsistent or inaccurate information.

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Official obfuscation

With vaccines still in short supply, the emergence of variants makes it even more vital for the public to follow prevention measures, health authorities say.

That’s a message stressed in states that have released information on counties or cities where variant cases have been found. Among them are California, Minnesota, Washington state and Colorado, with that state even naming a veterans home where two cases were detected.

Meanwhile, other mutant strains believed to be more resistant to authorized vaccines are popping up around the country.

The California Department of Public Health said last week that, along with B.1.1.7, a strain from Denmark called L452R has been circulating in the state since last year. Authorities have named a dozen cities and counties where the Denmark variant has been detected.

And the Minnesota public health department announced Monday that a case of a Brazil variant was detected in the state involving a resident of the Minneapolis metro area. It is believed to be the first case of the Brazil variant detected in the U.S.

Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Georgia Public Health appears to be misconstruing HIPAA’s privacy protections by refusing to release basic information about locations. Marshall said even if identifying a patient’s name based on cities were somehow possible — which it isn’t — HIPAA allows protected health information to be disclosed if it’s “necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public.”

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas faced a similar HIPAA argument when, early in the pandemic, a state commission refused to release the names of nursing home facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases. Ultimately, the state Attorney General ruled that the information should be released.

Joe Larsen, a foundation board attorney, questioned why some state health departments will reveal which restaurants have rat droppings, but won’t say which restaurants have employees with coronavirus.

“Basically, I think they are trying to cover their (backsides), to put it bluntly,” Larsen said. “I think that they are wary of too much public scrutiny on how well they are responding.”

Staff Writer Ariel Hart contributed to this story.

Variant strains of concern

· The United Kingdom strain, or B.1.1.7 – Spreads more easily and more quickly than other variants. At least 24 U.S. states, including Georgia, have seen cases, according to the CDC.

· The Brazil variant, or P.1 – More transmissible, could evade antibodies, hindering vaccine effectiveness. Detected in the Minneapolis metro area.

· The Denmark variant, or L452R – May be more resistant to the authorized vaccines, but more research is needed. Circulating in California since last year.

· The homegrown strain, or B.1.426 – More transmissible. Believed to have contributed to an alarming spike in California.

· The South African variant, or B1.351 – More contagious, could possibly evade antibodies. Not yet detected in the U.S.

Tuesday’s vaccination update

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey told reporters in the state Capitol Tuesday that Georgia’s COVID-19 surge following holiday get-togethers appears to be leveling off, but that the state does not know when it will have enough vaccine to start vaccinating more people, including teachers.

Toomey said she wanted “to remind everyone that our allocation really is not very large for a state of our size with a population of 11 million,” and that “our allocation is based on total population but there’s very little vaccine.”

State officials say Georgia’s current allocation is 120,000 doses a week. The White House announced Tuesday afternoon that states should get a 16 percent bump in their supply of vaccines.

Toomey reported a significant improvement in vaccinations recorded. She said health workers had administered 713,900 vaccine doses, or about 60% of the doses allocated to the state. The commissioner said officials do not know how many more doses may have been already administered but not yet recorded in state databases.