Peter Maass reports:
As COVID-19 tore through the United States in the spring, a senior official in the Trump administration quietly reinforced a set of guidelines that prevented journalists from getting inside all but a handful of hospitals at the front line of the pandemic. The guidelines, citing the medical privacy law known as HIPAA, suggested a nearly impossible standard: Before letting journalists inside Covid-19 wards, hospitals needed prior permission from not only the specific patients the journalists would interview, but also other patients whose names or identities would be accessible.
The onerous guidelines were issued on May 5 by Roger Severino, who worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation before Donald Trump appointed him to direct the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. The guidelines made it extremely difficult for hospitals to give photographers the opportunity to collect visual evidence of the pandemic’s severity. By tightening the circulation of disturbing images, the guidelines fulfilled, intentionally or not, a key Trump administration goal: keeping public attention away from the death toll, which has surpassed 300,000 souls.
The unifying principle between repressing photography of a war and photography of a pandemic is that a population that cannot see human carnage will not object as strongly to its perpetuation and will not care as much about the incompetence that brought it on. Hospitals and nursing homes may not have the mendacious intent of the U.S. military, but their actions have a similar effect of making it nearly impossible for ordinary Americans to be confronted with visual evidence of the true cost of the calamity that’s unfolding.
Read more on The Intercept. Let me say that I do not believe that what Severino said or did was intended to be in service of any administration goal to suppress exposure of the pandemic’s severity. In fact, in many respects, I think Severino was exactly right in trying to protect patient privacy and enforce HIPAA protections lest film crews show up and expose patients who had not consented to release or sharing of their information or identity. Do we wind up with less film/video coverage of what is going on inside hospitals? Yes. And no. We have all see footage taken from people’s cell phones that was shared. We have seen images of refrigerated trucks as morgues.
Yes, Trump and his administration have downplayed the severity of the pandemic since Day 1. But I don’t think that HHS has actively contributed to that. I do think they are trying their best to protect patient privacy while recognizing that sharing info on COVID-19 with family and others is important not just for the patient’s treatment, but for public health and the safety of others.