Louisiana parishes no longer getting COVID-19 patient names

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has stopped sharing information about residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus with local officials in dozens of parishes.

The Louisiana Department of Health ended the data-sharing Friday.

Louisiana was one of few states still providing the patient names to local law enforcement or emergency workers, particularly after civil liberty and community activists raised privacy concerns around the country. In Louisiana, the health department had raised worries about parishes potentially violating federal privacy laws governing the sensitive health care data.

“It is past time for us to end this practice. This data no longer serves its original intent and in fact could lead first responders to make the wrong decisions in protecting themselves,” the health department said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The agency began 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. That’s when first responders had shortages of masks, gloves and other protective gear.

“The original intent for sharing this personal data on residents who have tested positive for COVID with first responders was to help them decide when and how to ration their (personal protective equipment),” the health department said. “We are not in the same situation.”

In addition, the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus has spread across Louisiana since March, and many people don’t get tested even if they have it. Some people are asymptomatic and don’t know they have the virus, while others have such minor symptoms they don’t worry about the test.

“We’re encouraging everyone to take the proper precautions. You don’t need the data to tell you that anymore,” said Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens.

Worries emerged months ago about misuse of the lists by some parish officials who received them.

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 nonpartisan legislative auditor’s office debunked that theory and said the officials misunderstood the lists they received.

Those social media posts prompted the health department to ask parishes to sign data-sharing agreements if they wanted to continue getting the information. Sheriffs and emergency preparedness leaders in 40 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes filed the documents to continue receiving the lists. Those are the agreements the health department ended Friday.