The Portland Press Herald is attempting to force the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to release the names of four schools where chickenpox outbreaks occurred this school year, as well as other details about the outbreaks.

The newspaper filed a formal Freedom of Access Act request Tuesday, after requests the Press Herald made last week in interviews and emails were denied by the Maine CDC.

The agency has maintained that releasing the names of the schools would risk personal privacy by potentially identifying sick children. The CDC pointed to federal health laws that protect patient privacy.

But Sigmund Schutz, the newspaper’s attorney, said that simply naming the school is not identifying anyone.

“Keeping the public in the dark about communicable disease outbreaks is against Maine law,” Schutz said. “The public has a right to know how often and where outbreaks of communicable diseases, including chickenpox, are occurring. The public needs this information to protect themselves from harm, to evaluate public health policy, and to hold accountable government agencies responsible for protecting public health. Government agencies also benefit by educating the public about the risk of communicable diseases and encouraging immunization.”

While the CDC has discretion about how much information it must release about outbreaks, Schutz said his reading of Maine law is that the data requested by the Press Herald must be disclosed to the public. The Maine CDC defines an outbreak as an instance in which three or more cases of an infectious disease have occurred in the same place.


Four outbreaks at schools in one school year are the most recorded in Maine since the state began requiring the chickenpox vaccine for entrance to school in 2003. Overall, Maine has had 84 cases of chickenpox during the 2014-15 school year.

“We are asking for epidemiological data,” Schutz said. “We are not asking for names of individuals or any personally identifiable information.”

He said the Maine CDC is violating the law by not releasing the information. In addition to the school names, the Press Herald also is asking for the number of cases per outbreak and copies of communications between the Maine CDC and schools about the outbreaks.

The Maine CDC has referred the Press Herald to its policy of releasing the “minimum amount of data necessary” in order to protect personal privacy. The agency said last week that it was “not in the public interest” to identify the schools where the outbreaks occurred.

The Maine CDC did decide it was in the public interest to release school-by-school vaccination rates so the public would know vaccine coverage by school. The Press Herald has published a searchable database so parents can look up their schools.

In at least three cases in the 2000s, the Maine CDC released the names of schools or the town where an outbreak took place, including one in 2006 that involved chickenpox in Brunswick.

But more recently, the Maine CDC has followed a pattern of not identifying the location of infectious disease outbreaks, including refusing to name the restaurant where a Hepatitis A case occurred last fall.

Maine public health experts have criticized the agency for potentially putting people at risk by not disclosing where outbreaks occur. Most at risk are the immune-compromised, the elderly and infants too young to get their vaccines. Chickenpox is “highly contagious,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can be spread through the air or by touch.

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