MARY MEAUX — More transparency needed in reporting coronavirus cases

Published 12:19 am Thursday, April 16, 2020

Local health authorities and emergency management officials are doing a better job informing the public with updates on COVID-19, but there is still a ways to go for the full picture.

The news came fast and furious and was ever changing early on — remember the cancellation of the Nederland Heritage Festival? That seems so long ago.

On March 13, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick declared a state of disaster smack in the middle of the festival, which is held during spring break for Mid- and South County school districts.

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The festival was canceled, then about an hour later reopened when it was learned the effective date of the disaster was March 16.

Since then it’s been a roller coaster — to date, there have been seven amended emergency orders with eight addenda issued by the county, and that doesn’t include orders issued by each city.

The reporting of confirmed COVID-19 cases has improved from the early days of disseminating basically only the number of cases and the city the person lives. Now we are receiving information on gender and cases by age range, in addition to number of cases per city and deaths but that is a recent development.

Still, some confusion reigns. For example, the Texas Justice Court Training Center is advising justices of the peace that do inquests — meaning those that get reports from families of COVID symptoms — to put “suspected coronavirus death” on the death certificate. However, public health departments will not report the death as being a COVID-19 death unless there is a positive test result for COVID.

We do not know if a person is tested post mortem for the virus.

Another area of confusion comes from the reporting source.

Judge Branick is the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management director. That office sends out daily briefings with the number of cases for the six-county area served by the Southeast Texas Regional Emergency Operations Center, as well as a Jefferson County tally of cases and related statistics.

The Jefferson County numbers come from the Port Arthur and Beaumont health departments, and that information comes from results of people tested at local sites, as well as private physicians and hospitals.

Yet, there’s more.

As the local health departments are submitting their information in the late afternoon, local first responders are receiving their updates earlier in the day.

On April 7, the fire chief/emergency management coordinator for Groves sent out a press release that said the city had its fourth confirmed case, reminding residents to stay home as much as possible. But at that time, the official count, according to the health department, was three. The information was updated by the release of the afternoon briefing.

That same day, Port Neches had its first positive case, though the health department was not aware and it was not reported until the next afternoon.

This was due to an oversight. The testing was performed by a private physician and faxed in to the health department. It was an accident that the information was overlooked at a time when the department was receiving a large load of results.

Timing aside, first responders need to be aware of the cases as soon as possible, so they can make safety plans for their employees in the field.

The reporting of the virus by hospitals has also been under question. Kevin Dolliole with CHRISTUS Health said the company’s process calls for reporting any Persons Under Investigation, including positive and negative COVID-19 cases, as well as patient information to the local health departments and the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management.

The results are then presented to those agencies in as close to real time as possible in order to adhere to the four-hour reporting window mandated by Judge Branick.

It seems hospitals are not publicly reporting the number of COVID patients in their facilities.

Michelle Adams with the Medical Center of Southeast Texas said the information is shared with the local health department. Per the company’s adherence to federal patient privacy guidelines, the Medical Center of Southeast Texas does not release patient information to the public but follows the reporting policy to the local health department.

I am not asking the name and address of people who test positive. That would be absurd. What I am hoping for is a clearer picture of the virus and how it is affecting our area.

Mary Meaux is a news reporter at The Port Arthur News. She can be reached at