Local officials here are doing a lousy job providing us information about the pandemic. The Dallas County Health Department COVID-19 webpage looks like a DOS-based jigsaw puzzle from the 1990s.
You don’t know what DOS was, right? My point exactly. (It was an early and now primitive computer operating system.)
Look at the COVID page for Washtenaw County, Michigan. You go there and, bang! You’re looking at lab-confirmed cases by date of symptom onset, deaths by age group by week of death, cases by sex, cases by race, cases per day. One click sends you to an external website with an interactive click map for cases by ZIP code, current to today.
Now look at Dallas County. The first thing you see is a bureaucracy page with things like a phone number for the COVID-19 mental health support line. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just that I feel more like calling the mental health support line after trying to navigate the webpage.
If I scroll down, I come to a funky little ZIP code map that I finally figure out is not the real one. I click on a URL above it, and that takes me to the so-called current map, which is two days out of date. And when I do get to Dallas County’s two-day-old COVID map, all it gives me are totals for each ZIP code — none of the demographic breakdown I got from the Michigan county.
The simple totals per ZIP code on the Dallas County map are meaningless. I know from working with ZIP code data on other stories that some ZIP codes in southern Dallas have startlingly little of anything — unemployment, COVID-19, children with learning disabilities, people suffering from astigmatism.
Guess why? Because those ZIP codes cover a lot of undeveloped floodplain. Nobody lives there. So the only way to wring any useful information out of the numbers is to show not raw numbers but population rates — how any people per hundred thousand have got the disease. The Dallas page doesn’t even try to work the numbers.
By the way, it’s not a Michigan/Texas thing. In my search around the country for COVID pages, the absolute worst and most useless I found was in Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, where a terrible epidemic is taking place. New Orleans has another terrible page.
Texas' Harris County, meanwhile, has a badass page, not quite as complete statistically as Washtenaw in Michigan but more sophisticated and accessible. One of the things the Harris page does right at the top is divide Houston into quadrants to show which parts of the city are getting hit hardest.
I can’t prove this, but long experience covering local government in Dallas makes me think these pages are important and telling reflections of local culture. Public candor has never been a part of the basic DNA of local bureaucracy at either the city or county. Boxed about the ears too many times, they know all too well how little appetite their betters have for public debate.
The webpages I looked at this week from all over the country showed an interesting evolution in terms of the kind of information they provide. In response to demand from their local communities, some county health departments in the last week have begun providing detailed information on occupied and available ICU beds, for example. (Mayor Eric Johnson's office sends out a daily email with information about numbers of available and occupied hospital and ICU beds and ventilator usage.) When the demand for racial data became widespread and insistent nationally, many county health departments began publishing it, including our own.
So that means the information was always there. They had it. But in cases like ours, some counties didn’t publish that kind of information until the public demanded it.
And yet, nothing is more important in a crisis than good information. In terms of who has the greatest need for current accurate information about the pandemic, that’s you and me. First of all, we need to know what to do. Second, all these people work for us.
Major policy decisions are being made every day with which you and I might disagree, if we had a better picture of the numbers and the situation. Let me give you an example.
Only in the last few days have health departments around the country, including Dallas County Health and Human Services, begun reporting COVID-19 cases by race. The unmistakable message of those numbers, here and all over the nation, is that the pandemic is hitting black people and Hispanics in poor neighborhoods with a focused ferocity.
One of the unproven but plausible theories is that poor minority citizens suffer from a number of health-related preconditions that may make them especially vulnerable to the disease. But yesterday when I wrote about the racial component of the pandemic, I quoted the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church, who talked about another factor — black mistrust of the white medical establishment.
Haynes wasn’t just talking through his hat; he referenced recent juried research documenting race bias among some white doctors and nurses powerful enough to skew diagnosis and treatment. So if black and brown people have some misgivings about white doctors, they have reasons.
After my column appeared, a reader contacted me with a really smart idea. He pointed out that our state and county governments are caught up in an unseemly turf war over a pop-up hospital under construction in the city’s downtown convention center. It’s hard to tell what’s really going on there. My own suspicion is that our governor, Greg Abbott, a Trumpian COVID-minimizer, is jealous of our county judge, Clay Jenkins, a pandemic hero since Ebola in 2014. (Jenkins is an exception to everything I have said about the traditional reticence of local leaders.)
But whatever. The reader said that, after learning the extent of the impact anticipated in minority southern Dallas, it occurred to him that southern Dallas is where we need a pop-up hospital, not downtown near the Baylor and Parkland medical centers. Beyond sheer logistical convenience, a temporary hospital in the city’s southern hemisphere might offer the additional benefit of helping overcome reluctance to seek help in whiter parts of town.
If the goal is to save lives and get people well, and if the pop-up hospital is going to happen anyway, then why not put it in the part of town where it will do the most good? And let me hasten to add that every time I think I have a bright idea (like a national registry of immune persons, recently) somebody who actually knows what he’s talking about comes forward to tell me why it’s not a bright idea.
But at least we’re talking about it. At least we, the people most affected and the ones who own this joint, are in on the decision. For that to happen, we need full and complete information at our fingertips, whenever we want it, as soon and as fast as we want it. It’s our damn information.
Joe Eskenazi, editor and columnist at Mission Local, an online bilingual newspaper in San Francisco, did this same story in Northern California a week ago. He pointed out that the webpage for the city of San Francisco provides far less information than webpages for several of the surrounding counties.
Santa Clara County south of San Francisco tells visitors to its page how many patients are in acute care hospital beds compared with the total available beds, same thing for ICU beds, as well as how many ventilators are available and how many are in use. The page shows how demand for facilities has been surging over time compared to availability. None of that is available on the San Francisco page.
But guess what? When I looked at the San Francisco page, I was struck by how much better it is than the Dallas page. The San Francisco page shows day-to-day testing and day-to-day positive results as well as easy to read breakdowns by transmission category, race, gender and age. Forget Santa Clara County. We’d be way better off if we could just catch up with San Francisco.
The pandemic is terrible. People are dying. There is no way to sugarcoat the pain this disease is inflicting. But you know what they say. Never let a good crisis go to waste. The pandemic is also doing us a service, albeit a brutal one, by revealing problems that have been here all along, issues that were with us long before this disease arrived.
We were already suffering for the failures of the city and county to harness new information technology and use it to put important data in front of the public, where it’s easy to get to and simple to understand. That failure isn’t an accident or an oversight. It’s a telling reflection of the kind of people and the mentality that have dominated the city and county for too long.
The last thing the old guard wants is for people to get their hands on information that might get them talking. The same mentality that controls the county also rules City Hall. They all have a reason it’s a bad idea to tell the public too much.
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Our new mayor, recruited and financed by the old business oligarchy, last week deep-sixed a proposal that would have kicked off a very public council debate on the eviction crisis. The mayor referred the proposal to a council committee rather than allow it to come up for public debate.
His spokesperson, writing to me in objection to a column I had written about it, offered this quote from the mayor explaining his action.
"While I believe the goal of the proposed ordinance is laudable,” the mayor said, “we need the committee to vet this idea before we act upon it. It has significant legal ramifications, and we cannot afford to rush into something this far-reaching.”
But nobody said rush. They just said talk. In public.