San Antonio lags behind other parts of Texas in what it reports to public on COVID-19

Delays, limited information have kept city officials behind peers in informing the public about coronavirus

San Antonio lagging behind other parts of Texas in what it reports to the public on COVID-19

SAN ANTONIO – City of San Antonio officials have made it difficult for the media to accurately show how the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting this community.

That includes inconsistencies in some reporting, unexplained delays and limiting or refusing to provide information about the location of cases and possible exposures, the number of tests administered, the condition of known patients and the identity, age or other demographic information about people who have died.

WATCH: Dillon Collier breaks down the latest updates provided by the city on the coronavirus pandemic

Dillon Collier breaks down the latest updates provided by the city on the coronavirus pandemic

It’s certainly not an intentional attempt by city officials to keep the public in the dark — some hiccups are expected during an emergency as serious and fluid as the new coronavirus pandemic. But other local government officials in Texas and private and public organizations have apparently provided more detailed information in a timely manner directly to the public.

On Thursday, San Antonio Metropolitan Health Director Dr. Dawn Emerick told members of the media assembled outside of city council that her agency had now received the type of location-based data on COVID-19 that would help it determine where testing needed to be done or even ramped up.

Emerick described two dashboards for assembling this information: an internal one available by secure access only that contained “a lot of detailed health information that we need to make sure that we keep private” and an external dashboard that presumably would present the data in a manner that could be shared with the public.

While a presentation Emerick gave to City Council Thursday included a still image of a dashboard that mapped the cases in Bexar County, the city has not made the interactive map available to the public. Officials did not distribute the image through a website that the city has directed media and residents to for the most up-to-date information, as other local officials in Texas have done in their respective communities.

RELATED: San Antonio official explains rationale behind what it releases to public during COVID-19 pandemic

City officials presented this slide during City Council meeting, but have yet to make the interactive map public. (KSAT)

When pressed about when the public could see the data Emerick replied, “It’s not even built yet. We’re hoping that the external dashboard will be available by next Friday.” A city spokeswoman said via email Friday the map has not been finalized and will be made available on the city’s website once it is completed.

Compare Emerick’s response on mapping to that of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who Thursday night tweeted out a map of his county with COVID-19 positive test results broken down by ZIP code.

Comal County, which has a population much smaller than its adjacent neighbor Bexar County, has provided the public the location of each positive case in the county on its website and is updating it daily at 8 a.m.

Esri, a GIS mapping company, has created COVID-19 data specific to Bexar County based on Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Census and other publicly available data, but the same information so far has not been distributed by city or county officials. The dashboard does not include geographic or demographic information about infected patients or victims.

This map from Comal County Public Health shows locations of positive COVID-19 tests there. (KSAT)

But mapping positive COVID-19 cases for the public is just one of the many hiccups in releasing information by city officials.

For example, the city has constantly changed the time it provides daily updates on cases, deaths, tests and other information — bouncing from noon, to the afternoon and, most recently, around 7 p.m. each day. The changes have not been communicated in advance to media or the public.

When asked about the inconsistencies, a spokesperson responded: “As we announced earlier this week, going forward we are posting data at 7 p.m. each evening.” (On Friday, the city announced Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff would begin providing daily, livestreamed press briefings at 6:10 p.m.)

Last week, the city briefly stopped providing information on testing in the region through the website officials have set up to keep the public informed. After being pressed by KSAT, officials later added the information back into the daily totals.

City officials have not alerted the public to any possible exposures other than when an infected evacuee was inadvertently released from JBSA-Lackland with the virus still in her system last month, before Metro Health had confirmed any positive cases in the city. Compare that to how Guadalupe officials alerted residents of a potential exposure at a Schertz H-E-B earlier this week in a press release posted on Facebook.

City officials have also declined to release specific information about victims who die from COVID-19 related complications. To date, officials have not provided the exact age or identity of any of the five people who have passed away from respiratory disease.

Officials have told the Defenders the health department is trying to walk the line of informing the public while not violating a person’s medical information that is protected by HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

A San Antonio Express-News reporter on Thursday tweeted that the city would no longer be providing the age and gender of people who die from the virus.

A city spokeswoman responded, “That’s not accurate,” but didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

The reporter later tweeted an update, stating that the two most recent deaths were a woman in her late 40s and a woman in her 60s, both of whom had underlying health conditions. No such information was provided to KSAT despite requests.

The spokeswoman said via email Friday the city plans to continue sharing only an age range and gender on deceased persons moving forward.

A county spokeswoman conceded to KSAT on Friday that county officials have also asked the city and Metro Health for additional information on the COVID-19 cases but have so far only been told that the city is working on it.

The KSAT 12 Defenders on Friday requested on-camera interviews with Emerick and Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger, the former director of Metro Health, regarding our questions about transparency.

A spokeswoman for Metro Health said via text message that both were very busy and that a list of questions asked by the Defenders would be forwarded instead to the city attorney’s office.

A spokeswoman Friday afternoon provided written answers stating that HIPAA protects an individual’s identifiable information for 50 years after his or her death.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The disease first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, but spread around the world in early 2020, causing the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic in March.


About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.