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Why it was so important to fight for public records on COVID-19 cases at Mississippi poultry plants

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Why it was so important to fight for public records on COVID-19 cases at Mississippi poultry plants

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(Photo by Andreas Gebert/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andreas Gebert/Getty Images)

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, our newsroom in Jackson, Mississippi began hearing from sources that large numbers of poultry plant workers were falling ill. 

One woman told me some of her coworkers were coming into work sick. Others had stopped showing up entirely. She and her young children had tested positive for the coronavirus. Near the end of her two-week quarantine, she expressed anxiety about returning to the workplace, which she felt was unsafe. The company had not, at that point, provided adequate personal protective equipment to employees and was not consistently enforcing social distancing and other safety measures, she said.

A union representative estimated scores of workers had contracted COVID-19 at chicken plants across the state. Like other meat packing companies around the country that were seeing large-scale outbreaks, chicken processing facilities were unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The union source warned that COVID-related absences in the plants could lead to a significant decrease in chicken production, which is Mississippi’s most profitable agricultural commodity.

All of the information we were getting was anecdotal. We didn’t know exactly how many COVID-19 cases were linked to the poultry industry, which companies were seeing the biggest outbreaks and how many chicken plant employees had died of the disease.

When questioned during news conferences, state officials were not able to provide any figures. So I filed a request for public records with the Mississippi State Department of Health, hoping to get a full accounting of how many cases were linked to chicken plants and to shed light on who was being impacted.

I asked not only for the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths associated with poultry plants, but also a breakdown by facility, race, gender and age range. The coronavirus was disproportionately impacting people of color across the country and I knew I couldn’t tell the story of what was happening inside poultry plants during the pandemic without delving into the stark racial health disparities in Mississippi. I knew from my previous reporting on poultry plants that the majority of the workforce was Black or Latino, many of whom which are undocumented and still reeling from devastating raids carried out by federal immigration officials in 2019.

The response I received from the department of health surprised me. They asked me to sign a legally binding agreement as a condition of fulfilling the public records request. The document, titled “Mississippi State Department of Health Data Use Agreement for Limited Data Sets,” essentially sought to restrict the use of the records I had requested. I would be limited to using the data “only for research, public health or health care operations and could not publish information that “risks harm to the public health.” The agreement set out a long list of additional stipulations, including prohibiting any attempt to identify or contact anyone from the data set.

I was wary of signing anything that might interfere with the way I wanted to use the records. My editor had also never seen anything like it before.

It appeared the department of health was wary of releasing detailed information on poultry plant COVID cases that might lead a reporter to identify any individuals who had contracted the disease. Earlier in the pandemic, state health officials had declined to provide the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases citing privacy concerns, then later claiming they were too busy to respond to public records requests. To journalists and First Amendment proponents, this was an alarming move.

My colleague Giacomo Bologna, who had filed the public records request for names of nursing homes with coronavirus outbreaks, called it a “dangerous, terrifying precedent.”

“No government agency should ever unilaterally ignore public records requests — especially when those records are readily at hand,” tweeted Bologna, who also filed a complaint against the department of health with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

With Bologna’s experience in mind, I hoped the limited data set agreement wasn’t evidence of a troubling trend. I turned to my fellowship mentor Sonny Albarado, retired projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Michelle Levander, founding director of the Center for Health Journalism, for advice. My editor and I also consulted with seasoned data and investigations journalists in the USA Today Network.

The journalists we spoke to had some concerns with the language in the agreement. Does reporting fall within the scope of using the data for “research, public health or health care operations?” Would I be allowed to share the data with my editors and other reporters? The phrase “risks harm to public health” was vague — what would that entail? What provisions in state open records law or health department policy outlined the usage of limited dataset agreements?

I also spoke with the department of health’s communications staff to get a better understanding of where they were coming from. The limited dataset agreement was new for them too, they told me. They were implementing it during an influx of COVID-19-related records requests for health information.

In an email I summarized the concerns and questions I had about the agreement and sent it off to the department of health. I pushed back against the idea that providing a breakdown of poultry plant-related COVID-19 cases by location, gender, race and age range might lead to the identification of private information. After all, the information I requested could be aggregated.

Within a few days the department of health spokespeople got back to me. They were no longer requiring me to sign a limited dataset agreement before fulfilling the records requests for poultry plant COVID-19 records. It felt like a small but meaningful victory. 

With the COVID-19 poultry plant data in hand, I was able to publish a full accounting of the coronavirus’ impact on this essential workforce. More than 1,200 Mississippi chicken plant workers had contracted the coronavirus in 2020. I found the majority of cases were recorded in the spring, during the same time that sources said companies had been slow to implement safety measures. I confirmed that the vast majority of workers who contracted COVID-19 were Black or Latino. Using those numbers, I was able to tell stories about what the death of one Black chicken plant worker revealed about systemic racism in health and health care and how a grassroots group of volunteers fought to fill gaps in social services to undocumented immigrants during the pandemic. 

After Bologna had filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission over the health department’s refusal to provide names of nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks, health officials began publishing that information on their website. The ethics commission later ruled that the department of health had violated open records law when it declined Bologna’s request.

The pandemic has been a chaotic time with unprecedented challenges. I can understand why state health officials wanted to tread carefully around the issue of releasing health-related information and how, as the first line of defense against the coronavirus, they felt overwhelmed and overworked. However, the freedom of information should never take a back seat in government functions in any situation. Transparency was more important than ever in 2020, the deadliest year in U.S. history. Sometimes we must fight to maintain the freedom of information. It took sustained communication, asking lots of questions and firm pushback to ensure that vital information that the public had the right to was actually made public.

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