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Tennessee COVID-19 Data Sharing Plan Incites Privacy Pushback

After a plan to share data about novel coronavirus cases between the state health department and police agencies came to light, some officials have opted out of the agreement citing privacy concerns.

by Rosana Hughes, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / May 13, 2020
Shutterstock/Tartila

(TNS) — After one local law enforcement agency pulled out of an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Health to receive the names and addresses of residents who test positive for COVID-19, only two local agencies remain in the agreement, according to the latest information from the state health department.

Those two agencies are East Ridge and Collegedale police.

"Governor [Bill] Lee and the Department of Health have stated that they believe that sharing this information with the first responders will enable officers and employees to protect themselves as well as individuals in their custody from the community spread of COVID-19, among other benefits to the public health, safety and welfare," said Bridgett Raper, spokeswoman for the Small Cities Coalition of Hamilton County, which encompasses East Ridge and Collegedale.

Last month, the Tennessee Department of Health, at the request of Gov. Bill Lee, sent two letters — one to police chiefs and one to sheriffs — offering to share otherwise federally protected health information with law enforcement, something that wasn't publicized at the time.

Since media reports began to expose the information sharing on Friday, the practice has drawn criticism for potentially breaching privacy and discouraging people from getting tested.

Elected officials for East Ridge and Collegedale did not return a request for comment Tuesday to say whether they were aware that their respective law enforcement agencies had entered into the agreement.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Department pulled out of its agreement. The public housing agency had previously been unaware that its police department had entered into the agreement and is no longer a part of it, agency executive director Betsy McCright told the Times Free Press.

Chattanooga police chose not to enter into the agreement because "the speed with which we have to go to a call and help people is too great for us to spend time trying to figure out [if they've tested positive]," Mayor Andy Berke said during a Facebook Live question-and-answer session this week.

"We know that it is a concern when it comes to the privacy of residents of our community, so we have chosen not to sign the memorandum of understanding," Berke said. "We are not accessing that information ... Please go get tested. You do not have to worry about that being turned over to law enforcement in our community."

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office hasn't signed the agreement, either.

"We are very fortunate in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. The decision was made not to utilize or seek out that information," said Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a member of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, which has called on Gov. Bill Lee and the department of health to stop sharing the identities of those who tested positive for COVID-19 with law enforcement.

The information is "shared so that first responders can know on the front end whether the situation or household to which they are responding involves positive patients so they can take appropriate precautions," department of health spokeswoman Shelley Walker told the Times Free Press by email.

A person's name falls off the list after 30 days, according to the agreement. An updated version of the list will be sent each day to agencies that have signed the agreement, and they're required to shred all outdated copies as soon as they receive a new version and 30 days after the statewide state of emergency has been lifted.

According to the agreement, it's up to each individual agency to determine how to handle the information, so long as it's in compliance with the agreement.

But how does the state have the authority to disclose otherwise protected health information?

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, a "covered entity," such as the health department, cannot share personal health information except in certain circumstances.

One of those exceptions is "when the disclosure of health information to first responders is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That's if the health department "believes in good faith that the disclosure of the information is necessary" and the "disclosure is made to someone they believe can prevent or lessen the threat."

But there are better ways to protect law enforcement, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators said over the weekend.

After hearing from many in the black and Hispanic communities, the group of lawmakers warned the practice could discourage testing in communities that are "already distrustful of the government" and who fear "other uses" of their information.

Here in Hamilton County, activist group Concerned Citizens for Justice also pointed to the potential negative impact on certain communities.

Providing the information to law enforcement "creates a barrier for community members that have had traumatic and harmful relations with law enforcement for generations," CCJ member Nate King said. "Undocumented people are particularly at risk of facing deportation, and this form of surveillance further isolates their ability to access care and testing."

Caucus Vice-Chair Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, said, "That's why it's so important to have diverse representation at the table when these issues are being discussed so decisions aren't being made that could possibly do more harm than good and possibly set us back in terms of much needed testing"

The group has said Lee's office "promised to work with the Black Caucus this week to find solutions to the issues and that [they are] 'encouraged' by the quick response from the Lee Administration."

Lee's office did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

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

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