Dear Lt. Gov. Hochul:
Congratulations on becoming New York’s 57th governor. We wish you success in a challenging job. As an organization committed to openness in government, the Empire Center especially welcomes your commitment to leading a fully transparent administration.
In that regard, we want to draw your attention to recent actions of the state Health Department, which continues to resist telling the public what it knows about the coronavirus pandemic — in defiance of good public health practice, not to mention the Freedom of Information law.
Even on the most basic questions — such as how many New Yorkers have died — the Health Department is sharing only partial information. The Associated Press recently reported that the death toll of 43,000 posted on the state’s COVID tracker website leaves out about 11,000 additional fatalities included in the more complete data the Health Department provides to the CDC.
Also still hidden are basic facts about the pandemic’s tragic impact on nursing homes, such as how many residents and employees caught the virus and when.
Moreover, much of the data the state does release are needlessly posted in formats that inhibit downloading and analysis — limiting their usefulness for outside researchers, journalists and curious citizens.
In March, a coalition of nine good-government groups, including the Empire Center, called for the state to publish all of its pandemic data on the Open NY portal — in a readily downloadable, tabular format.
When there was no response, the Empire Center followed up in June by filing more than 60 requests for records under the Freedom of Information Law, urging the department to post its responses publicly. Two months later, all but a handful of these requests remain unfulfilled — and the department is resorting to familiar stalling tactics.
Officials have claimed that they need months to conduct a “diligent search” for records, when the requested information could be readily found and easily copied from databases that the department uses on a daily basis.
Instead of committing to comply by a firm deadline, as FOIL requires, the department promises only to update its progress at a future date — and possibly postpone things further. The department has been known to drag things out in this way for years.
With respect to one high-profile dataset — the complete count of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents — the department finally released its records only after the Empire Center won a court order in February 2021.
New Yorkers should not have to hire lawyers and wage months-long legal battles to see records that rightfully belong to them in the first place — and that officials ought to be sharing without being asked.
Your predecessor’s failure to be open and honest about a life-and-death emergency did enormous damage to the credibility of the Health Department and was one of the factors that led the Assembly to open an impeachment inquiry.
As the new governor, you have the opportunity to repudiate this shameful episode. We urge you to direct the Health Department to drop its delaying tactics, comply with the Freedom of Information Law and publish all of its pandemic data as soon as humanly possible.
President and CEO
Empire Center for Public Policy