Nashville Follows Tennessee's Lead, Stops Sharing Coronavirus Patient Information with Police

In this June 4, 2020, file photo, Metro Police officers watch as marchers in a protest pass through downtown Nashville, Tenn.

In this June 4, 2020, file photo, Metro Police officers watch as marchers in a protest pass through downtown Nashville, Tenn. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

 

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The city’s board of health voted to stop sharing names and addresses of people who tested positive for Covid-19 with law enforcement after lawmakers raised privacy concerns.

The Nashville Board of Health will no longer share the names and addresses of patients who test positive for Covid-19 with police and other first responders—becoming the latest government agency in the state to stop the practice after officials raised privacy concerns.

The board’s decision Thursday comes after the Tennessee Department of Health also halted the practice last month, saying the disclosures were “no longer warranted.”

Health officials in states across the country decided to share patient information as a way to put first responders on high alert when they are dispatched to assist someone known to be infected. The Associated Press found that public health officials in at least 35 states shared the addresses of people who tested positive for the virus, and 10 states shared the names of patients.

In Tennessee, some health officials and lawmakers were critical of the practice and raised concerns about how the disclosures could undermine the public’s trust in law enforcement, particularly among minority communities that are being disproportionately affected by the virus.

“If we allow this policy to continue, in light of the current dynamics and conversations about race … it sends a bad message that we are just not in step with the direction of this country,” said Nashville Board of Health Vice Chair Tene Franklin, who led the vote the disband the practice, according to the Tennessean.

Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the outbreak, and have seen higher in infection and hospitalization rates than white Americans.

Neither the board nor the mayor’s office responded to requests for comment Friday. But the director of the city’s public health department has defended the practice, saying it was helpful in notifying police in route to emergency calls and also in keeping people infected with the virus out of the city jail. 

"We have documented cases where that has happened and we believe that this has directly helped to keep the numbers in our jail low," said director Dr. Michael Caldwell during a coronavirus task force briefing last month. "It only takes one virus to infect the whole facility and we have seen that in state facilities, infect the whole jail. That has not happened in Nashville and I don't expect that to happen."

The city’s health board voted 3-1 on Thursday to stop sharing the data. City officials were in the process of revising how data would be shared with law enforcement in order to address the mounting community concerns, the Tennessean reported.

The head of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators was among those critical of the state’s information sharing with police, saying  because some communities of color are already mistrustful of law enforcement the agreements may have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to be tested for Covid-19.  

Caucus Chairman Rep. G.A. Hardaway said he was glad state and city health departments have stopped the practice, noting that authorities did not inform people when they were tested that their information would be shared.  

“There was little to no public awareness of this which made it even more sinister,” Hardaway said. “Why didn’t you tell us when you gave us this test how you were going to use this information? The citizens who took this test thought the information would come to you and you only.”

Health and law enforcement officials should have taken a different approach to be more transparent to residents and disclosed upfront how the information would be shared, he said. If a person tests positive, they should be given the opportunity to opt out of having that information shared.

Federal health care privacy laws would typically limit disclosure of patients’ confidential health information, including their addresses, without their permission. But in March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance identifying specific circumstances under which usually protected personal health information could be disclosed to law enforcement, clearing the way for state and local governments to make such disclosures.

Tennessee stopped sharing coronavirus patient information at the end of May, with the governor's office indicating the decision was made because first responders now have adequate access to personal protective equipment.

Elsewhere in the United States, police are using “heat maps” based on patient address data to identify neighborhoods with high coronavirus infection rates so that first responders and other government workers can take additional safety precautions when they are dispatched to those areas.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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