County properly withheld COVID-19 outbreak locations from news organizations because disclosure would undermine contact tracing.
News organizations sought records from San Diego County under the Public Records Act regarding the exact locations of COVID-19 outbreaks. The County produced some information—the outbreak city, number of cases, deaths, dates, and sector (such as skilled nursing facility, restaurant/bar, church, gym, etc.), but redacted other information, including the exact name and address of an outbreak location.
The news organizations filed a petition for writ of mandate, seeking to compel production of the unredacted spreadsheet under the Public Records Act. (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) The County opposed the petition, arguing that the public’s interest in nondisclosure outweighs the news agencies’ interest in disclosure. (Id. § 6255, subd. (a).) The County offered the uncontradicted declaration of its public health officer, who explained that disclosure would chill the public’s willingness to cooperate with contact tracing efforts. The health officer’s declaration also explained that the County must take reasonable efforts to protect persons’ medical privacy, and that publication of specific outbreak locations would not impact the spread of disease. The trial court denied the petition, and the news organizations petitioned for writ relief.
The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the County convincingly showed that its ability to conduct effective contact tracing during a deadly pandemic outweighed the news agencies’ interest in obtaining information about exact outbreak locations. The court rejected the news agencies’ argument that the County’s evidence was speculative, noting that the public health officer’s uncontradicted opinion that disclosure of outbreak locations would undermine contact tracing efforts was based on her expertise and her concrete experience combatting the pandemic. The court also rejected the news agencies’ claim that disclosure of outbreak location information would benefit public health based on the County’s uncontradicted evidence that disclosure would not help anyone avoid COVID. Finally, the court held that the news agencies failed to explain how disclosure of specific outbreak locations would improve the public’s ability to assess the County’s pandemic response.
The bulletin describing this appellate decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.