Jim Zachary: Transparency can't be an afterthought

Here is what Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said earlier this month: "We have to have transparency -- we're continuing to work to improve all of our reporting systems. That is what is going to give us the ability to respond adequately."

Toomey and Gov. Brian Kemp were talking about inaccurate data sets the state has been using to tout how many people in Georgia have been tested for COVID-19.

Essentially, they have been adding the number of all the people who have received antibody tests to the number of all the people who have received actual COVID-19 tests, and used the total to brag about how many people have been tested for the virus.

Of course, these are two totally different data sets and now that the miscalculation has come to light, everyone -- including Toomey and Kemp -- is saying it is not an accurate measure and most certainly not the way to mitigate and help stop the spread of the virus. In a nutshell, the antibody test does not tell the state who has the virus and should quarantine, it merely tells you if you have possibly had the virus in the past.

The excuse has essentially been that the state of Georgia -- and many other states, to be fair -- counted this way because that is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended.

What is most disturbing is that now Toomey and Kemp say what we really need is transparency.

It is just disingenuous to champion transparency only after you have been caught pulling the wool over people's eyes.

Real government transparency must be intentional.

Where was the transparency when Kemp ignored the advice of the White House and reopened Georgia's businesses before federal recommendations?

Where was the transparency when our state became a national punch line because the first businesses which were reopened were close-contact enterprises such as bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, salons and massage therapists?

At that time, cases of the coronavirus were still surging in Georgia.

The federal government had recommended that states begin reopening the economy after 14 days of declining numbers.

When journalists pressed the governor for how he was making his decisions and why he was not following the national guidelines of the Trump administration, Kemp said he was looking at data, talking to heath experts and making decisions based on science.

Of course, that all sounds good.

In fact, it sounds just as good as Toomey now pledging transparency.

But when the press pushed Kemp on the question, asking what specific data, what particular science he was relying on to make the controversial decisions, he did not provide the information and continued to speak only in vague, opaque generalities.

That's not transparency.

Toomey also said: "Having multiple, actual, accurate data is our top priority for public health, and to make that available to the public, to decision makers, to the media and we will continue to do that as we move forward and hopefully with even greater agility."

Again, good words.

To Kemp's credit, at the end of a rambling press conference this week that focused, in part, on the misleading data he said, "Look, we're not perfect. We make mistakes and when we do that, we'll own that, change it and make sure that people are aware of that."

Those words are refreshing.

Good leaders, effective leaders, honest leaders do not just defend themselves, make everything about themselves and claim to always be perfect. Rather, they admit their mistakes, own their mistakes and correct their mistakes.

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is editor of The Valdosta Daily Times and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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