Editorial: Release of weekly list of deaths should resume

The county health district no longer provides the list to The Herald; but it’s misinterpreting the law.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The weekly record of births, marriage licenses, divorces and deaths — hatching, matching and dispatching, if you will — had long been a staple of local newspapers, including The Daily Herald, officially the paper of public record in Snohomish County.

Typically published by The Herald on Sundays, the lists gave the barest of details in small type about births, marriage licenses, marriage dissolutions and deaths.

Over time, however, some of those listings have stopped, specifically the listing of births once released by local hospitals. Providence Hospital stopped providing notice of births about 10 years ago, citing a federal privacy law, even though previously those notices came with the signed consent of both parents.

Now, under questionable reasoning, as of early July the Snohomish Health District has ended its practice of providing a weekly notification of deaths in the county to The Herald for publication.

The information provided and published in The Herald regarding deaths was limited, listing only a person’s last and first names, their age, their city of residence and the date of their death.

Few likely made the listings regular reading, but it provides — or provided — a public record of those who were born, lived and died in the county, and also allowed enough information for those with legitimate purposes regarding legal issues or genealogical research, the basics that would allow further request of documentation from local and state agencies.

There is a reason they are called vital statistics.

The Snohomish Health District notified The Herald on July 2 that it would discontinue a data-sharing agreement with the newspaper to provide the weekly death notices for publication. After requesting an explanation, the district’s administrative officer, Shawn Frederick, said the agency was discontinuing its agreement with The Herald for two reasons:

First, by its interpretation of state law, the local agency needed the consent of the state Department of Health’s registrar of vital statistics, which it does not have.

Second, the agency is changing its policy ahead of legislation passed last year that takes effect, Jan. 1, that determines who has access to such records.

“In anticipation of the upcoming changes and the lack of authority from the State Registrar for current distribution, the Health District has stopped releasing the weekly death lists,” Frederick wrote in an email to Herald Executive Editor Phillip O’Connor.

OK. Except that’s a misinterpretation of the current law and of the pending changes to the law.

And that’s not just our opinion, as O’Connor explained to Frederick in a reply; it is the opinion of Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, the state Department of Health and state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who was the prime sponsor of the legislation that amended the state law, Senate Bill 5332.

The Herald’s state government and politics reporter, Jerry Cornfield, was told by the state Department of Health: “The current Vital Records law is silent on any provision for the release of death data, and therefore does not preclude such disclosure. The new law that goes into effect on January 1, 2021, only contemplates the Department of Health releasing vital records data, including death data. We are aware that counties have been distributing demographic death reports to newspapers for years. We are in the process of collecting information on this practice and looking into the issue.”

The governor’s office agreed: “Our read of the legislation is that it does NOT prohibit sharing this information with media, but it does require that there is a data sharing agreement in place.”

Pedersen, who is an attorney, also told The Herald that he is not aware of any language in SB 5332 — or any motivations among its other sponsors — to end the practice of health districts providing the weekly report of deaths.

As yet, O’Connor has not received a reply to his July 24 email to Frederick, nor has The Herald received a response to three emails regarding the issue sent to County Council member Stephanie Wright, who is chairwoman of the Snohomish County Board of Health.

The Herald has asked the health district to continue the current data-sharing agreement through the end of the year, allowing time to clarify the issue before the changes to the state law take effect.

The practice of caution, especially at a time of heightened concern for privacy and protection of personal data, is understandable, but the scant information released as part of the weekly report of deaths in the county would be of little value to data thieves and scammers. And ending its publication complicates research by those studying and compiling family histories and those with legitimate legal purposes.

During the coronavirus pandemic and long before, The Herald and the Snohomish Health District have worked together closely on informing county residents regarding issues related to public health and their general interests. That will, of course, continue regardless of the outcome of this issue because it is in everyone’s best interests. But we ask the health district and the board of health not to unnecessarily limit access to information that is gathered on behalf of the public and that should be made available to the public.

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