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To release or not to release your COVID-19 stats — that’s a key question right now

Different philosophies from city's and fire departments around the country

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Dan Patrick (not the sports guy) is a long-time friend and former co-worker still in the news business and currently working at WPVI-TV in Philadelphia. Dan’s tweet (above) focuses on the answer yesterday (Tuesday) from Brian Abernathy, Philly’s managing director, about why the city isn’t releasing stats on COVID-19’s impact on its fire and police departments. Abernathy told reporters, “Our concern is that we want to make sure that, one, privacy is protected but also that we don’t create some level of panic by saying that 12 officers, or 50 officers, or 100 officers have been tested positive.”

II’s possible there may be good reasons for not releasing such stats. I’m confident neither one of those reasons fit that category. Just releasing stats from two very large public safety agencies — with no names or identifying information — does not violate a police officer or firefighter’s privacy. It’s much less identifying than releasing  — on any other given day — that two police officers from the 14th District were hurt in a car crash, or two firefighters from Engine 46 were injured in a fire. I know everyone’s under a lot of pressure with COVID-19 — including the extremely competent leaders in Philadelphia  — but that’s a pretty flawed excuse.

As for the public panicking, I live less than a mile from our Nation’s Capitol and have been closely watching reaction to the many briefings by the District of Columbia government. I can assure you no one is panicking here. Not even a whiff. Check today’s tweet (below) from another veteran newsman and long-time friend, Paul Wagner. Tests show 14 DC Fire & EMS Department firefighters — including an assistant chief — and 5 police officers have COVID-19. In addition, 338 firefighters and cops are under quarantine.

Again, no panic. Somehow, I see DC’s transparency on this issue as the opposite of panic. I find it reassuring. They’re letting us know the serious challenges the city faces with COVID-19. It isn’t all perfect and normal. That’s because nothing’s perfect and normal right now. Nothing. These are the same challenges being faced around the country and the world. And they’re letting us know well-trained emergency managers have it under control. Did acknowledging hundreds of firefighters died on 9/11 create additional panic or did people immediately rally around FDNY, giving them unprecedented and much deserved support?

Releasing the information also underscores how crucial the public’s role is in protecting these firefighters and police officers by following the important COVID-19 guidelines. There are reasons for these new rules and a key one is keeping our cops and firefighters healthy.

See those two people in the DC picture. On the right, Mayor Muriel Bowser. At the microphone, Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue. I constantly give them crap about the horrible 911 center they run. It wouldn’t be unfair to call me a bat#$^t crazy gadlfy on that issue. I’m tweeting at them almost daily trying to get them to fix it. But I think they got this one exactly right. It’s the type of openness and honesty I teach. It builds trust. It acknowledges problems and shows leadership addressing the issues. It lets the public know your people on the front lines are greatly impacted by the same crisis we all are, but they continue to battle on to protect us.

Not sharing this information can make the public start to believe you’re hiding a much bigger crisis that may not exist at all. In addition, there are few secrets any more. There’s a very good chance the information is going to leak. In fact, after that press conference WPVI’s Chad Pradelli reported that sources confirm 20 Philadelphia police officers and 14 firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19.

The same thing happened more than two-weeks-ago (seems like two-months-ago) when DC Fire & EMS had its first two confirmed cases. The information leaked. Reporters Paul Wagner and Mark Segraves reported it and IAFF Local 36 president Dabney Hudson acknowledged the reality, on-the-record. Pretty quickly, DC’s top officials realized this was not the way this should be handled. By not addressing it directly, the voice of DC’s leadership wasn’t being heard on this key issue. So they changed it for the better.

DC is not alone in this openness. It started way back when Kirkland, Washington told us about it’s first firefighters quarantined (what year was that?). Since then, many cities, counties and towns have shared this information.

Philadelphia — which has some wonderful leadership I greatly admire and respect — isn’t alone either. Here’s the situation in and around Columbus, Ohio where they make a different argument for not telling us how many firefighters and police have COVID-19.

Bethany Bruner, Columbus Dispatch:

The three largest public safety agencies in Franklin County will no longer release the number of personnel who have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the agencies said Monday.

The Columbus Divisions of Fire and Police and the Franklin County sheriff’s office all cited consultations with legal counsel.

“It has been determined that the impact of COVID-19 on staffing numbers is considered part of our critical infrastructure, and therefore protected information,” the sheriff’s office said in a release.

Representatives of the police and fire divisions echoed the sheriff’s office stance.

Read entire story

Critical infrastructure. Protected information. While it sounds much better than weak claims about privacy and panic, I’m still very skeptical it’s the right approach. I’m a transparency and openness breeds trust guy. I get that many people and public safety leaders aren’t. That doesn’t make them bad people. I just worry they’ll be doing more harm than good — and I’m sure they feel the same about my way of thinking. For the record, I’ll freely admit — once again — I’m just that bat#$^t crazy gadlfy throwing stones in from the outside while they’re on the front lines — at this very moment — trying to handle a crisis of enormous proportions, using their best experience and judgment. Despite that, I’ll encourage all government leaders handling the crisis, if you’re going to withhold key information or refuse to discuss controversial issues, that you’re also publicly explaining why in a way that’s logical and easily understandable.

I’ll leave you with this. Up until now, I would not call myself a fan of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Nothing bad, but nothing that I saw particularly special. To me, his performance in recent weeks has shown remarkable crisis management skills. He was among the first to get through my thick head the reality of this pandemic in a calm and understandable way. Governor Cuomo has openly acknowledged the many challenges facing the state’s response and continues to explain how they’re addressing each of them. There’s a lot of hurt in New York and he’s not sugarcoating it.

Acknowledging and sharing your weaknesses at a time of crisis is a show of strength. That’s leadership. It takes courage to share the truth.

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