The Allegheny County Health Department has released previously redacted information on victims involved in swimming incidents over the past three years.
The Tribune-Review sought the information in a Right-to-Know request.
The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records decision was a partial win for the newspaper, which sought basic information on 61 swimming incidents from 2016 through 2018, and the county, which redacted the age and gender of victims.
Last month, Open Records ruled that county officials failed to demonstrate lifeguards are not subject to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, which restricts the release of medical information. HIPAA typically applies to health care officials.
Erin Burlew, the Open Records officer who reviewed the newspaper’s appeal, found the county erred by redacting the information when lifeguards treated victims. The Open Records decision stemmed from the newspaper’s request for non-identifying details about swimming incidents – including three drownings – as part of an examination of pool inspection reports in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties over three years, which found oversight disparities.
The appeal resulted in the county releasing the incident date, gender and age of victims only treated by lifeguards. Those reports account for roughly one in three of the requested reports.
Victims’ ages ranged from 18 months to 50 years old. Of the 20 swimming incidents, eight of the victims were female and 12 male.
Pennsylvania’s leading news association said the ruling was a win for readers and ripe for a court review. Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, questioned how the redacted information would identify swimming pool victims.
It’s unclear whether the Sept. 11 legal decision narrowly defining releasable information will impact hospitals that routinely provide victim gender, age and general health conditions in mass casualty incidents.
The county could have filed an appeal in Commonwealth Court, but elected to release the information Open Records deemed public.