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Tennessee County Withdraws from COVID-19 Data Sharing Plan

The Hamilton County Health Department has pulled out of a plan to share coronavirus patient data with first responders and 911 dispatch. The controversial plan drew fire over concerns about privacy.

by Rosana Hughes, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / May 15, 2020
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(TNS) — The Hamilton County Health Department has ended its agreement with the 911 Communications Center to share COVID-19 patient data, a move that came as Gov. Bill Lee's administration has drawn criticism for directing the state department of health to share similar information with some law enforcement agencies.

At the end of March, the Hamilton County Health Department began sharing "limited data" about patients who tested positive for the virus with 911 dispatchers, according to department administrator Becky Barnes.

It's not clear exactly what data was shared, as Barnes declined to respond to further questions and the department hasn't provided a copy of the agreement, but if a call was made from an address on the list, "a respiratory alert flag was noted so first responders would know to wear appropriate PPE" or personal protective equipment, she said.

Barnes did not state under whose authority the agreement was made, why the agreement was ended or who ordered it to stop.

"This will be a change for our EMS responders, but is an important step for ensuring trust and cooperation with our community to ensure contact investigation and tracing efforts," she said.

Barnes also did not specify whether the information was relayed through 911 to only emergency medical personnel or to police and firefighters as well.

John Stuermer, 911 executive director, did not return a request for comment.

Across the state, 911 districts served by the state health departmenrt have been receiving the names and addresses of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 or received treatment for the virus since April 3.

Abbey Dennis, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, which oversees 911 districts, said the goal of sharing the information is to protect first responders but conserve the limited supply of personal protective equipment.

First responders can only learn whether a person has tested positive at a specific address. They don't know that person's name unless it's the same person needing emergency care. And only the first responder who was dispatched will know if there's a COVID-19 patient at the scene.

As of Thursday, 90 out of 100 emergency communication districts have signed the agreement with the state. The Department of Commerce and Insurance did not return a request to confirm which districts were included.

The Tennessee Department of Health, which runs the health departments in 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties, also entered an agreement with the state Department of Homeland Security on April 6 with the purpose of informing the Tennessee Highway Patrol's dispatchers of the identities of COVID-19 patients within each Highway Patrol district.

The agreement to share the information directly with police departments and sheriffs' offices came on April 21. An undated agreement was also sent to county jails across the state.

Tennessee Department of Health spokeswoman Shelley Walker did not return a request to confirm which jails signed the agreement.

Since media reports began to expose the information sharing on Friday, the practice has drawn calls for it to end over criticism for potentially breaching privacy and discouraging people from getting tested, especially when it came to sharing the information with law enforcement.

During a press briefing this week, the governor said his office is considering a change in the practice now that protective equipment has become more readily available.

As of this week, only two local law enforcement agencies have signed the agreement with the state: East Ridge and Collegedale police departments.

©2020 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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