Public health officials in at least two-thirds of states are sharing the addresses of people who test positive for the coronavirus with law enforcement and other first responders.
In North Dakota, patients’ names and dates of birth are shared too.
KX News sat down with the state’s Department of Health to find out if, and how, they’re assuring private health information is being kept secure.
The North Dakota Health Dept.’s Chief Operating Officer says this all began at the end of April.
“It came from a request from the first responder community. They wanted more information and more transparency in terms of the situations they may be entering, so they could prepare better,” explained the COO, Dirk Wilke.
We asked him why officers couldn’t just be extra cautious around everybody.
Wilke responded, “Yeah, and that would be our guidance honestly. There’s a risk everywhere you go. But information is a form of protection and we want to be as transparent as possible while protecting privacy. But then, too, we do have a State Health Officer order about positive cases and quarantine. If we’re asking local law enforcement to enforce that, they need to know the names of who they’d be enforcing.”
Given the contagious nature of the virus, Wilke says sharing this health information is HIPAA compliant, and 100 percent legal.
“We make lots of contacts within the community. We’re in lots of residences and we don’t want to be the ones that spread it around,” shared Deputy Chief Jason Stugelmeyer with the Bismarck Police Departement.
Wilke says the personal information available to first responders, like the Bismarck Police, is updated daily by the Dept. of Health. For those who have recovered, their information is deleted and new cases may be added.
First responders never have access to the list, just the dispatchers.
“It’s all controlled by Central Dakota Communications. Even as an Administrator here, I don’t even have access to the database to go look,” Deputy Chief Stugelmeyer added.
So, what’s being done to make sure that those first responders aren’t passing that information along further, that it’s not getting spread?
We asked Wilke if spreading health information beyond the responding officers can result in punishment.
“Actually, yes there is,” Wilke shared. “Because the information is so sensitive, we did draft what’s known as non-disclosure agreements, and anyone who violates those non-disclosure agreements are subject to penalty, up to a C Felony.”
Deputy Chief Stugelmeyer says it would also violate law enforcement policy, under the oath of privacy taken when you’re sworn in as an officer.
We asked Wilke and the Bismarck Deputy Chief if the sharing of information could have a chilling effect on officers responding to certain calls.
They both assured us that first responders sign up to put themselves in potentially risky situations every day, and have not seen this to be an issue.