Why filing a request for information matters, even if the request is denied

Christine Stuart

CFOG director Christine Stuart of CTNewsJunkie.com won a 2019 Breaking News Award from the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) organization in October 2019 for her relentless pursuit of public data about school-age child immunization rates in Connecticut.

Here’s how Christine got the data and the story, as told to us by CTNewsJunkie partner/business manager Doug Hardy:

In late 2018 and early 2019, Christine began hearing from sources inside the state Department of Public Health that although the state’s overall MMR immunity was above the CDC’s recommended “herd immunity” rate of 95%, there were individual schools where the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine rates were well below the standard.

Measles is among the most contagious diseases in the world and had been nearly eradicated by an aggressive vaccination program, but it has made a startling comeback because some parents are scared to vaccinate, often based on misinformation. Immuno-compromised children are particularly vulnerable to the disease – children who had survived cancer, for example. The threat was very real and as such, Christine wanted to break through and access the school-level data.

From the end of 2018 into early 2019, there were outbreaks in multiple states, including two in New York. There was a 25-year high in individual measles cases in the United States. So the story about the school-level data took on a new urgency.

Her research indicated that a lot of other states already required their health departments to disclose their school-level data, but Connecticut law prohibited that. She was told by a variety of people that she couldn’t get it. (This was a particularly significant motivator for Christine).

Christine felt that fighting for the release of the school-level data was a public good. Without naming kids, she wanted to let parents know how safe their children are in a given school.

She sent a request to the state health department on Feb. 7, 2019. DPH refused, based on the statute, on March 5, 2019.

Two days later, The New York Times reported that an unvaccinated student with measles had infected 21 other students in Brooklyn. Many of the 21 also were unvaccinated.

So on March 11, 2019 – coincidentally during Sunshine Week – her first story was published on CTNewsJunkie.com: “As Measles Returns, Connecticut Offers Little Info About Immunization Rates,” and the needle began to move.

There was a significant reaction to the story from the public and legislators. On March 13, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter and two other Democrats promised a vote on eliminating the “religious exemption” to required school vaccinations.

As a small operation, CTNewsJunkie doesn’t have a staff of data visualization experts available, so with fingers crossed, we started planning ahead for the day the state would release the data. We got a template ready to map the schools using Tableau software.

By Tuesday, April 30, DPH announced plans to release the data. Three days later, the data was released and within two hours, CTNewsJunkie had a full story and an interactive map color-coding the MMR rate for every school in the state with kindergarteners and seventh graders:

The data was shocking, with some schools that were double-digits below the safe immunity rate, and Christine had comments from multiple politicians, public health experts, and the anti-vaccination contingent.

Christine and her team wrote another 25 news stories on the MMR vaccination rates, and more are coming. She has since found problems in the data and how it is being handled by the schools. And she’s done all this while making sure to both respect and include the views of the anti-vaccination group, some of whom even sued the state to stop the release of school-level data.

With respect to lessons on #opengov, Christine said her takeaway from this effort is that filing a request for information matters, even if the request is denied.