Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Analysis: Reasons sketchy for continued virus data-sharing

by Associated Press

By MELINDA DESLATTE | Associated Press

Louisiana continues to share information about residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus with local officials in dozens of parishes, even though the initial reasons for providing the personal and sensitive health information appear to have disappeared.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has offered little in the way of an explanation for the ongoing data-sharing of protected health information, but the governor said he’s reviewing whether it should continue. The health department has raised concerns about parishes misusing the lists of people with positive tests and their addresses.

Louisiana is one of the few states still sharing the patient names with local law enforcement or emergency workers, particularly after civil liberty and community activists raised privacy concerns around the country. Tennessee, for example, announced in May that it was ending the practice after facing blowback.

Louisiana’s health department starting sending lists of people with positive tests and their addresses to local emergency officials in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to help first responders know when they’d be interacting with someone infected with the virus.

At the time, first responders had shortages of personal protective equipment and were rationing masks, gloves and other gear. The idea was to give local officials lists of people who tested positive for the virus to help law enforcement and emergency workers know when they should use that limited protective equipment because they’d be encountering someone who had the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

Those shortages are largely gone.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has spread across Louisiana, so the lists don’t truly show the footprint of the virus outbreak anymore. Many people are asymptomatic and don’t know they have the virus. Others have only minor symptoms and may not bother to get tested.

Edwards acknowledged Tuesday that the reason initially offered for sharing the personal information — the protective gear shortages — have disappeared. He also noted that public health officials say first responders should act as though anyone they encounter could be carrying the virus.

“We have so much community spread that really law enforcement should be treating everyone as if they have COVID,” the Democratic governor said.

Yet, he stopped short of saying the lists will stop.

“I know we’re looking at that policy to see if current circumstances continue to warrant us exchanging that information,” Edwards said.

The health department — and some lawmakers — have expressed worry about misuse of the lists and possible violations of federal privacy laws governing personal health information.

There’s some evidence that could have already happened, as officials in two rural parishes sought to use the data to promote theories on social media that the Edwards administration was artificially bloating the number of COVID-19 cases the state has seen.

Officials with Red River Parish’s homeland security office and with the DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office posted claims on Facebook in July that the health department was inflating the numbers of residents in their parishes who tested positive for COVID-19.

The actions of those officials in Red River and DeSoto parishes prompted an audit that debunked the inflated numbers theory and spurred the health department’s requirement that parish officials must sign data-use agreements outlining limits on disclosure of the information to keep getting the lists.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s nonpartisan office found that claims the state was double-counting their positive coronavirus tests in the official tally of cases was unfounded. Auditors said the parish officials misunderstood the information they received.

Under the new health department rules, 39 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes filed agreements signed by both their sheriffs and emergency preparedness officials to continue receiving the lists.

DeSoto officials signed the data-sharing document to keep getting the information, but Red River Parish will no longer receive the positive test results list because its emergency preparedness office didn’t return a data-use agreement to the state.

As Edwards said his office was reviewing the information sharing policy, he didn’t cite the two parishes that have been accused of misusing the data they received. But he did say: “The privacy concerns are always an issue.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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