Tarrant County Refuses|to Release Zika Data

     FORT WORTH (CN) — Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, sued the Texas attorney general, claiming that complying with a public records request for the ZIP codes of Zika cases would violate patients’ privacy.
     In an Oct. 28 lawsuit in Travis County Court, the county disputes Ken Paxton Oct. 19 opinion that release of ZIP code information is permissible because the Public Information Act request sought “only statistical information.”
     Tarrant County disagrees: “Such disclosure would violate state and federal law, which protects certain health information,” it says in the complaint. “For covered entities, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act sets privacy standards for medical records and other protected health information. Additionally, the Texas Medical Records Privacy Act, Chapter 181 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, prevents disclosure of an individual’s protected health information from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.”
     Tarrant County says there is an exception under state law that allows disclosure if the information “can be sufficiently de-identified” so as not to violate the privacy of the subject.
     “However, given the nature of protocols related to the treatment of Zika virus, complete ZIP codes present a likely disclosure of protected private information of a person infected with Zika virus,” the complaint states. “The response for Zika is unique, with a very visible public health response, including the physical presence of public health officials and targeted spraying of insecticide within 150-yard radius of the infected person’s residence. The presence of public health officials in a small area together with the published ZIP code of a confirmed Zika case would likely reveal an individual’s medical condition in violation of state and federal privacy laws.”
     Tarrant County asked Paxton’s office for its opinion on Aug. 10 after NBC affiliate KXAS-TV asked for a breakdown of Zika cases by ZIP code.
     Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment Tuesday afternoon.
     At least 237 cases of Zika have been reported in Texas, 23 of them in Tarrant County, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Tarrant has reported the third-most Zika cases in the state, behind Harris (65) and Dallas counties (40).
     The first case of sexually transmitted Zika in the United States was reported in Dallas County in February. The patient apparently caught the virus from someone who was bitten by an infected mosquito in Venezuela.

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