We have been inundated with numbers since the coronavirus pandemic started.

Keeping track of the number of positive tests in a county or a state or a country has become the sort of numerical habit most typically associated with lottery and stock market aficionados.

Government agencies have also been forthcoming in reporting the number of people who have died from the virus.

But this statistical onslaught has largely omitted data that add considerable context to the public’s understanding of how the virus is affecting society.

The list of less-accessible numbers includes how many people are being treated in a hospital for COVID-19, and among those how many patients are in intensive care and how many are on a ventilator.

The public has in many cases been denied these details based on the spurious grounds of federal health privacy laws.

That a hospital, or a government agency, would refuse to divulge the names of COVID-19 patients is understandable.

But numbers aren’t names.

And St. Charles Health System, the Bend-based company that owns hospitals in Bend, Redmond, Prineville and Madras, announced this week that on weekdays its website will include the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, how many are in intensive care, and how many are on ventilators.

Lisa Goodman, public information officer for the St. Charles Health System, said the company added that information to its website because it has received many requests from the media and the public for those measurements.

Goodman said the company’s legal advisers concluded that releasing that information didn’t violate any privacy laws. That’s only reasonable, considering the reports don’t list patients by name, age or any other detail that could conceivably identify any of the people involved.

Other hospitals, including the Saint Alphonsus Health System, which operates the hospital in Baker City, should follow suit.

The statistics that St. Charles is releasing are valuable in helping the public understand the effects of the virus. Without those data we have no way to know how many people in a relatively small geographic area, if any, who test positive suffer serious, potentially life-threatening effects, but survive. At the county level we know only how many people test positive, and how many die. The Oregon Health Authority’s daily COVID-19 report includes the number of patients who are hospitalized, in intensive care or on ventilators, but that’s for the entire state, not for a specific hospital or group of hospitals.

There’s no legitimate reason for the public to have to guess about such important details. The absence of information encourages speculation, which is the wellspring of misinformation.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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