State agency says data migration prevents it from disclosing overdose data to the public | State and Area News

Michael McDermott hasn’t used drugs or alcohol in nearly 30 years, and he’s spent much of that time advocating for those like himself who are recovering.

He shares helpful information on the FAVOR website — Faces and Voices of Recovery of Virginia (

On his website is a graph he made showing monthly EMS response data for overdoses in Virginia by jurisdiction from January 2017 to November 2020.

He obtained the Microsoft Excel data three times from the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, part of the Virginia Department of Health. And the trends showed an increase in overdoses between 2017 and 2020 — proof, McDermott says, that what the state is doing to tackle drug addiction isn’t working.

But McDermott said he was unable to get the same data this year.

He said he spent months going back and forth on the phone and email with the Office of Emergency Medical Services, where the associate director finally told him they would get him the 2021 data. by September 30.

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After that date passed, McDermott was so frustrated that he filed a motion in court in Goochland County, where he lives, asking a judge to order the agency to turn over the data under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

In a hearing on Monday in the Goochland General District Court, a judge ruled that the agency did not need to hand it over because an ongoing data migration was hampering the agency’s ability to provide it.

McDermott was disappointed.

“This data can save lives, Your Honor,” he told Judge Claiborne H. Stokes Jr., adding, “This data is important in informing how we can do a better job in the community against this epidemic of addiction.

Gary Brown, director of the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, and Adam Harrell, associate director, spent two hours in court last Monday in a convoluted hearing in which McDermott represented himself.

In an interview for this story, McDermott said he started asking for 2021 overdose data around April or May. He provided emails to the Richmond Times-Dispatch showing he had been pushed around. In May, he corresponded with people from a company working with the state. In June, he emailed Carlos Rivero, the Commonwealth’s data manager, about the data he was trying to obtain and had previously obtained.

McDermott was referred to a state health official and emailed him in early September, copying other officials. She replied, “OEMS is working to quickly restore access to our historical data so that data queries can be performed.” She referred him to Harrell, the deputy director of the office.

In court, state officials argued through their attorney, Assistant Attorney General Krista Mathis Samuels, that the data they have is exempt from FOIA because it relates to confidential patient information. . McDermott asked why they couldn’t separate the information like they had before.

The assistant attorney general acknowledged that the office never gave McDermott a written response citing a FOIA exemption, which is required by law when a government agency refuses to turn over exempt records. The judge made no ruling on this.

The judge asked why McDermott had been able to obtain the data before. “That was before the migration,” said Samuels, the state’s attorney. She also said state officials had previously provided McDermott with the data as a “courtesy,” but considered the overdose data to be confidential until it was “processed.” She said the agency was not required to process the data, but did so as a public service.

“They are setting up a system where he can get the data. … It’s just going to take time,” she said.

It could be after the first of the year, according to the bureau.

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Twitter: @patrickmwilson

Sean N. Ayres