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News 5 Investigates: State Health Dept. hides statistics and data during COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 Data
Posted at 5:36 PM, Oct 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-02 00:31:04-04

COLORADO — News 5 Investigates has found the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) hiding data pertaining to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Not even the Governor's Office has a response when we reached out to them for assistance.

Gov. Jared Polis

Everyday, the State Health Department releases various Coronavirus statistics to keep us all informed. This data includes numbers for daily testing, deaths and hospitalizations.

A few months ago, News 5 Investigates started asking for more specific data on ICU bed counts and capacity numbers for hospitals in southern Colorado.

Hospitals didn't want to give us their daily statistics, and CDPHE decided to hide the raw data from us by denying a records request we submitted.

We know the data exists, but the State doesn't believe you have a legal right to see the raw data they use to then publish their information online.

ICU bed counts and capacity numbers are supposed to be reported daily to the state. We also know this information is filtered through the Colorado Hospital Association, or CHA.

"CHA is the leading voice of the Colorado hospital and health system community," a statement reads on its web site. "Representing more than 100 hospitals and health systems throughout the state, CHA serves as a trusted, credible and reliable resource on health issues, hospital data and trends for its members, media, policymakers and the general public."

CHA Mission

Contrary to its mission, the CHA was not helpful when we asked for basic hospital statistics.

"Thanks for reaching out," CHA Director of Communications Cara Welch said. "While CHA does collect the hospital data on behalf of the state, we are not releasing hospital level data."

CHA Statement

We asked four major hospitals (UCHealth Memorial, Penrose St. Frances, St. Mary Corwin and Parkview) for their daily ICU bed counts and capacity numbers---all either refused or pointed us to the Colorado Hospital Association.

The Colorado Hospital Association pointed us right back to the hospitals.

Not sure of what to do, hospital spokespeople then directed us to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

On July 28, 2020, News 5 submitted an open records request to CDPHE for data.

On July 31, Monica Wilkerson, the Records and Legal Services Liasion for CDPHE responded.

"I am working on your request, however, the staff who would likely have this information are out of the office this week," she said.

A few hours later, CDPHE denied our request for information.

"You may wish to contact the hospitals directly, or the Colorado Hospital Association to request individual data pertaining to those facilities," Wilkerson said. "This concludes the Department's good faith response to your request for records."

News 5 recently learned that CDPHE, hospitals and the Colorado Hospital Association may not be eager to provide the data we requested because not all hospitals were reporting their daily statistics.

Through email, we asked Colorado Hospital Association CEO and President Chris Tholen this question:

Is the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA) declining to release individual daily hospital bed counts and capacity statistics because there are hospitals that have failed to report these daily statistics to your agency?

CHA President and CEO Chris Tholen
CHA President and CEO Chris Tholen

Tholen did not respond to our question.

Instead, the CHA spokesperson replied.

This time, Welch said the CHA was not going to release individual hospital statistics/data over "HIPAA concerns".

However, HIPAA is meant to protect a patient's privacy and medical file.

"We will not release individual hospital counts for a number of reasons," Welch added. "Most importantly, we believe this is a matter of patient safety, as we don't want patients making a decision about where to seek care (or if they should seek care) based on what their local hospital may be experiencing during the pandemic."

You can read CHA's full response here.

Circling back to the question we wanted the CHA President and CEO to answer, KOAA News 5 Investigates has been able to independently confirm that not all hospitals are reporting daily ICU bed counts and capacity statistics.

How do we know this?

In August, CDPHE posted a chart that tracked the percentage of hospitals reporting data. Take a look:

COVID-19 Data

Over this 7-day timeframe, there's not a single day where 100-percent of hospitals reported data.

On one day, only 64-percent of hospitals reported data.

This means that when we broadcast the numbers the state provides, it's not 100-percent accurate. The data may only be as accurate as the percentage of hospitals who are transparent with their numbers.

After we started asking questions about this data, CDPHE either deleted or moved the chart from where it was published on the COVID-19 web site.

We also reached out to Gov. Jared Polis for comment and help accessing accurate hospital data.

"Thanks for reaching out," spokesperson Shelby Wieman replied on Aug. 3, 2020. "Let us check on this."

News 5 never heard back from the Governor's Office.

However, a spokesperson for CDPHE called us twice to find out more about the information we were seeking after the Governor's Office reached out to her.

We provided CDPHE with the information we wanted to obtain and to-date, have not heard back.

In the near future, we'll be re-submitting our requests for information to see whether the state will be more transparent with data and statistics during the Coronavirus pandemic.

We believe you have a right to have accurate data that impacts southern Colorado.

If you have a story idea or issue you'd like Chief Investigative Reporter Eric Ross to look into, email News5Investigates@KOAA.com.