Unprecedented. It’s a word that has enjoyed a resurgence in our culture since the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses, canceled sports, caused a toilet paper shortage for some reason, forced us indoors and threw our lives all out of whack.


It’s an apt word for this moment, when truth is needed most from those who serve the public. I’ve certainly never seen anything like our collective response to the coronavirus, which, as of Saturday night, has infected nearly 665,000 and killed nearly 31,000 worldwide.


Unprecedented, however, is not a word powerful enough to grant government officials the ability to withhold information from the public simply because they claim it is in our best interest. But that’s exactly what San Bernardino County officials have done since announcing the region’s first confirmed case on March 15.


Not only have our county officials not disclosed the geographic locations for any of the 64 confirmed cases here, they also, for a time, stopped including the ages and genders of patients after the third case — “a woman in her 50s” — was reported on March 17.


A day later, two more cases were announced with no details. No ages. No genders. Nothing.


When Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio asked why the information was withheld, county spokesperson David Wert said public health officials “(saw) no value to the public in disclosing genders, ages, and places of residence, and potential harm in that the information could be used to help identify the patients.”


Wert also said the information could create “a false sense of security” among people living in unaffected locales and a “needless sense of panic in the identified communities.”


Funny, I don’t see false senses of security or needless senses of panic plaguing our neighbors in Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties, where officials have disclosed such information.


Funnier, our public health officials saw value to the public initially. When they reported the first case, not only did we get the age and gender of the 53-year-old woman, we also were told where she had recently been (London), where she went for help (Kaiser in Fontana), who administered her test (Quest Diagnostics) and how long it took to get the results (three days).


It was a wealth of knowledge compared to what we’ve received of late, and it helped us understand better how the woman became infected, who in our area is capable of conducting tests and how long results might take. Context sure can be a powerful, reassuring thing.


But county officials grew more tight-lipped with each new case, which, ironically, caused some of that “needless sense of panic” they hoped to avoid.


People grew anxious. City officials — in Ontario at least — were inundated with questions from residents seeking information county leaders suddenly thought everyone was too irresponsible to receive.


Then, on March 26, county officials backpedaled from all that “no value” talk when they went live with a dashboard filled with data about COVID-19 in San Bernardino County, including the ages and genders of those who have contracted the disease.


They did not, however, reveal locations.


Thankfully, not everyone believes the county is right to keep secret such important details. The City of Ontario, on March 25, filed a California Public Records Act request for “identification of the cities of residence or unincorporated communities of residence for each and every confirmed case…”


In a statement on the filing, Ontario City Manager Scott Ochoa said the patient privacy concerns voiced by the county are “misplaced.”


“We are not seeking specific identifiers that would divulge protected information under HIPPA,” Ochoa said. “Until and unless folks can confirm that COVID-19 is impacting their community directly, people are apt to lessen their adherence to the State’s stay-at-home orders – especially when neighboring counties are releasing such information.”


I agree, so much so that I filed my own CPRA request on March 27.


What’s most interesting here is the fact that the officials who manage the largest county by area in the United States — a novelty they wear like a badge of honor until its truth contradicts their messaging — say they’re afraid patients might be identified if locations are disclosed.


Really? Suddenly these 20,105 square miles filled with nearly 2.2 million people are no bigger than the kitchen table of the local gossip? The answer is no, and now, after the first “concentrated outbreak” of 12 people inside a nursing facility in Yucaipa on Saturday, the county has altogether changed its tune.


Part of the statement released on the outbreak in Yucaipa reads, “The County Department of Public Health is gearing up to begin reporting the number of cases within each of the county’s 24 incorporated cities and towns as soon as Monday…”


If you ask why they’ve had this sudden change of heart, which a Daily Press reporter did on Saturday, they’ll tell you they always planned on releasing city data. They’ll tell you they were simply waiting for confirmed cases to reach a certain threshold.


If that’s true, they should have said so from the start instead of claiming there was “no value” in us knowing.


In unprecedented moments like this one, truth from government officials is crucial because it calms fears and builds a collective confidence amid uncertainty. Anything less makes them look ineffective at best and suspect at worst.


City Editor Matthew Cabe can be reached at MCabe@VVDailyPress.com or 760-490-0052. Follow him on Twitter @DP_MatthewCabe.