Judge Orders County to Disclose COVID-Related Death Data

Government

Judge Orders County to Disclose COVID-Related Death Data

A San Diego judge has sided with Voice of San Diego in a lawsuit seeking county records of COVID-19 deaths. 

The San Diego County Administration Center / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A San Diego judge has sided with Voice of San Diego in a lawsuit seeking county records of COVID-19 deaths.

In a Nov. 10 ruling, Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn paved the way for the release of San Diego death certificates linked to COVID-19 — or similar records. He ordered San Diego County to search its death databases and turn over information necessary to access relevant documents.

Voice of San Diego sued in July, after the county said it would only disclose death data if the request specified death dates and the names of the deceased. That came after I sought records in April of COVID-19 deaths, including death certificates describing coronavirus as either causing or contributing to deaths in long-term care facilities.

The lawsuit argued the county’s position requires that the public already know information in a requested document, turning state public records law on its head. Government accountability is at stake, said Felix Tinkov, a public records attorney who filed the action on behalf of Voice of San Diego.

The county’s “efforts to shield the death records should not be permitted, as doing so allows it to remain the sole, uncorroborated source of health and economic data for this region in a manner directly contrary to the law,” said Tinkov in a response petition.

Through requests for death certificates and other county records, Voice of San Diego hopes to track the virus on a granular level and potentially check the accuracy of reported data.

In the ruling, Styn cited what he called “the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the significant public interest in the county’s role in responding to the pandemic.”

Styn said nothing prohibits the county from searching its comprehensive death index in response to a records request. He wasn’t swayed by a county argument that the records requests should be denied because of a state health and safety code that restricts death certificate dissemination.

Further, Styn highlighted an element of state records law that stipulates public agencies must assist in identifying responsive records. Tinkov had claimed that the county stymied, instead of helped, upon receiving the records requests for death data.

Styn directed the county to comply with the records requests through a multi-step process. The county must search its indexes for death certificates related to COVID-19 and provide the names and death dates on these certificates. In turn, this information would allow access to either the death certificates — or records with similar information.

The ruling is stayed for 20 days to allow the county time to potentially appeal. County Spokesman Michael Workman said the Board of Supervisors would decide whether to appeal in closed session.

Including the death records lawsuit, Voice of San Diego this summer filed four COVID-related petitions after agencies hindered outside scrutiny and transparency efforts.

KPBS and the San Diego Union-Tribune have joined Voice of San Diego’s lawsuit over the county not disclosing outbreak locations.

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