Tennessee Will Stop Warning First Responders of Covid-19

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee will soon stop providing the names and addresses of Covid-19 patients to first responders, after initially arguing that doing so would protect those on the front line.

Republican Governor Bill Lee’s administration decided on the change this week, saying the data may have created a false sense of security to those responding to emergency calls. The data sharing will stop at the end of the month.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. (AP photo/Alex Brandon)

The announcement follows an Associated Press review that found public officials in at least two-thirds of states are sharing with first responders addresses of people who tested positive. A small handful of those states, including Tennessee at the time, also shared the patients’ names.

Supporters say the information is vital to helping them take precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus. Yet civil liberty and community activists have expressed concerns of profiling in African American and Hispanic communities that already have an uneasy relationship with law enforcement.

“Individuals who have Covid-19 but who have not sought testing because they do not have symptoms may unintentionally transmit the virus to your personnel because the need to wear appropriate PPE was not apparent,” wrote Todd Skelton, legal counsel for Lee’s coronavirus task force, in a Tuesday email. “Therefore, first responders and law enforcement are encouraged to treat all close interactions with individuals with appropriate precautions.”

Skelton said that personal protection equipment is now “more readily attainable” for first responders. In his email, Skelton wrote that more than 1.4 million PPE items had been shipped to law enforcement and others across the state.

The Department of Health originally declined to hand over the Covid-19 patient data, warning that wearing protective equipment only in those cases of confirmed illness is unlikely to guarantee protection.

That decision was overturned by the governor’s office after law enforcement pleaded that it was needed to stay safe.

Lee told reporters that the patient data-sharing policy would be temporary and could change when more information and protection equipment became available.

Sharing the information does not violate medical privacy laws, according to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But it hasn’t stopped concerns about how the information was being used.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Tennessee Black Caucus and others have called for a stop to the sharing of data with law enforcement.

At least eight states are continuing to share patient names with law enforcement: Iowa, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota. Wisconsin did so briefly but stopped this month.

Colorado officials also confirmed on Wednesday that local health departments had stopped sharing names and addresses with law enforcement because the community transmission of Covid-19 had become so widespread.

Colorado has had more than 25,000 positive cases and more than 1,100 deaths linked to the virus.

In Kansas, Republican lawmakers had included a section in a sweeping coronavirus bill that would ensure Covid-19 patient names, addresses and other relevant information would be provided to first responders and 911 call centers.

The bill was vetoed by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly on Tuesday.

Kelly did not refer to this provision in her veto message, and lawmakers did not discuss it during House and Senate debates. However, during a caucus for Republican state senators, state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican, defended it as necessary for protecting first responders.

The state is one of the few that had not shared patient data with first responders.

In Tennessee, law enforcement officials have been instructed to “delete and/or shred” the patient data provided by the state within 30 days, according to Skelton’s email.

“Also, you must immediately notify Health if the (protected health information) in your possession has been, or is suspected of having been, disclosed in an unauthorized manner, regardless of when the disclosure occurred,” he wrote.


By KIMBERLEE KRUESI

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