Though it would be impossible to calculate what impact earlier knowledge would have had, the fact that deaths at local long-term care facilities were not reported publicly for three weeks is inexcusable.


County officials refused to divulge to the public that dozens of patients were dying in these facilities during the outbreak of the coronavirus under the misguided belief that they were required to withhold that information to protect the privacy of individuals.


It was only after unanswered questions and concerns of family members and staff were publicized, first here in the New Jersey Herald and then picked up by other media, that the true extent of the death toll was made known — with 17 bodies stacking up at the Andover Subacute facilities.


State officials, who never placed restrictions on sharing coronavirus statistics from long-term care facilities, began detailing the numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths in their daily news briefings, even to the point of breaking them down according to specific nursing homes beyond merely giving aggregate figures by county.


According to state figures through Friday, five of the eight long-term care facilities in Sussex County have had people test positive for the virus, and four have had people die as a result. The cumulative breakdown is: Andover Subacute I, 43 cases and 11 deaths; Andover Subacute II, 144 cases and 34 deaths; Barn Hill Care Center (Newton), 14 cases and zero deaths; Homestead Rehabilitation and Health Care Center (Newton), 36 cases and 7 deaths; and Valley View Rehabilitation and Health Care Center (Newton), 18 cases and 6 deaths.


Additionally, administrators of some facilities in the state — Andover Subacute I and II being the most notable locally — were also not performing their obligation of informing residents, staff and families of infectious disease outbreaks in their facilities.


Complaints and concerns from anguished family members and frustrated employees shared in news stories led to quick response and resources for assistance — actions that surely could have been taken earlier had the needs been better known.


These are trying times and staffs are being stretched beyond the pale to address the needs of their patients and residents while continuing to provide compassionate care while risking their own health.


But transparency is needed.


In this case, the lack of transparency goes beyond budgets and money and the other usual objections of "good government" types and may well have had a real cost in human lives.


In their first official comments regarding reporting issues of local facilities, members of the Sussex County Board pf Chosen Freeholders last week failed to explain why the information was not disseminated on the county level while also placing blame, perhaps justifiably, on the state for not addressing the situation despite having the information.


During that meeting, Kristy Lavin, a former freeholder candidate and current resident of Hardyston whose uncle passed away at Andover Subacute on April 4, told the freeholders that now was not the time for pointing fingers or placing blame.


"Now is the time to see what can be done in the future in terms of prevention and, on a county level, what is within your power to make sure nothing like this ever happens again," Lavin said.


For starters, Lavin said ”you can be transparent.“ We couldn’t agree more.


Lavin also said they could educate the public in terms of long-term care facilities and educate the public to make sure that family members know who to reach out to to voice grievances. ”That's something that's within the county's power."


Though finger-pointing can be a fruitless pursuit, determining accountability to assure such pain and heartbreak can be avoided is a worthwhile endeavor.


An encouraging note was rung at the county’s Chamber of Commerce briefing on Friday, when Freeholder Herb Yardley said the county intends to be as transparent as possible and has retained the services of an epidemiologist to continue providing more detailed statistical analysis of the data as it becomes available.


County officials also plan to begin tracking the number of residents diagnosed with the virus who have recovered.


Shared accurate information is needed to help allay fears and help fight the disease during this pandemic.