Shhh! Don’t Ask! COVID-19 Equity Analysis Is for Governor’s Eyes Only

by Carol J. Bova

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) blog posted March 16 that the department and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) would open community vaccination centers in Danville, Portsmouth, Petersburg and Prince William. “The sites were selected after the Virginia Department of Emergency Management conducted an equity analysis to determine the communities with the largest number of vulnerable populations and communities with the largest percentage of vulnerable population and greatest COVID-19 impact.” (See Steve Haner on March 26.) I sent a FOIA request to VDEM for a copy of the equity analysis.

While waiting for the VDEM reply, I wrote on Bacon’s Rebellion March 17 that VDH should target vaccination efforts to neighborhoods with high rates of poverty where COVID-19 risk factors were most likely to be found rather than basing the sites on VDH’s flawed virus statistics of racial demographics.

I received a response from VDEM denying my request.

VDEM responds that pursuant to Va. Code § 2.2-3704.B.1, the requested records are being withheld. The material that is being withheld consists of eight separate analyses and reports. These reports were prepared for the deliberative use of the Governor regarding strategies and recommendations for addressing the COVID-19 Emergency in the Commonwealth. As such, the reports contain information identified as working papers of the Governor for his deliberative use. Accordingly, the records are being withheld under Va. Code § 2.2-3705.7(2).

What makes the demographics in the analysis such a top secret? The COVID-19 impacts within communities are already available in VDH datasets by zip code or by locality. The Weldon Cooper Center, acting as the state demographer, has poverty statistics for Virginia communities. Doesn’t the VDEM analysis reflect those numbers?

Va. Code § 2.2-3705.7(2) says about “Working papers and correspondence of the Office of the Governor…”:

Further, information publicly available or not otherwise subject to an exclusion under this chapter or other provision of law that has been aggregated, combined, or changed in format without substantive analysis or revision shall not be deemed working papers.

“Working papers” means those records prepared by or for a public official identified in this subdivision for his personal or deliberative use.

Identifying vulnerable communities by income status and poverty levels, compiling the number of  people in those communities, adding up how many COVID-19 cases and deaths they’ve experienced, and adding up how many vaccinations to see how many are still at risk should be a straightforward, if time-consuming, set of computations within VDH purview.

Is the Governor really deciding how VDH distributes vaccines?

Or did the numbers require revision to support the Governor’s and the VDH’s COVID-19 racial health inequity story-line? If that’s the case, we’ll never see the VDEM equity analysis.