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October 05, 2021

Pa. House advances bill to make more COVID-19 data publicly available

The legislation would amend a 1950s-era law that the Wolf administration has used to keep some records confidential

Government Legislation
PA COVID-19 Data Katherine McAdoo/

A GOP-backed bill that passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would make all state reports on COVID-19 and other diseases available to the public.

A bill that would make more state reports on COVID-19 and other diseases available to the public was passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in a party-line vote Monday. 

The Republican-backed bill, sponsored by Bucks County's Rep. Craig Staats, would amend the 1950s-era Disease Prevention and Control Act to allow the public access to all state reports on diseases and any records of actions taken in response to those reports. 

The Disease Prevention and Control Act allows the health department to keep reports on infectious diseases confidential. 

In the initial days of the pandemic, former Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine cited it as a reason for withholding the number of COVID-19 tests the state was conducting and the number of cases in nursing homes – though that information was later made public. 

But Spotlight PA reported in August 2020 that the Wolf administration was still using the law to prevent public access to other COVID-19 data and documents. 

Republicans say the bill would provide a greater scope of COVID-19's spread, helping people make good health decisions and providing insight on how to respond to future pandemics, the Pennsylvania Capital Star reported. For instance, the bill would make reports and records associated with the state's school mask mandate, like the vaccination and infection rates by school district, subject to the state's Right to Know Law.

Democrats have argued that it could produce information that invades people's privacy.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said the governor opposes the bill.

"Sadly, this is yet another political attack on public health thinly veiled as a transparency effort when our mutual focus should be on improving our vaccination rate in all parts of Pennsylvania," Kensinger told the Capital Star.

Rep. Malcolm Kenyata, a Philadelphia Democrat, said during the floor debate that it wasn't clear what the legislation would do, NBC10 reported.

"I don't have confidence or comfort moving forward with this without more conversation about what this does," Kenyatta said.

The health department already publishes daily COVID-19 cases totals and updates its data dashboard, which provides information on testing, hospital capacity and vaccination rates by county.

Rep. Jessica Benham, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said Pennsylvania would be the only state to subject such data to right-to-know laws in this way.

"Voting no on HB1893, which repeals the "Confidentiality of Reports and Records" of the Disease Prevention and Control Law to allow Pennsylvanians' health info data and reports to be subject to Right to Know laws," Benham tweeted.

The legislation is the latest fight between Republicans and Democrats over the Wolf administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In May, voters approved a Republican-backed ballot measure to restrict disaster declarations to 21 days and allow the General Assembly to extend or end them by a majority vote. The GOP-led legislature promptly ended Wolf's disaster declaration in June. 

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