(TNS) — Alabama is one of at least two states that is currently sharing the addresses, but not names, of confirmed COVID-19 patients with emergency response personnel to protect those responders from becoming infected.
Normally, that information would be shielded to comply with patient confidentiality law, but Alabama and Massachusetts determined that the benefits to public safety outweigh privacy concerns.
Every day since March 23, the Alabama Department of Public Health has provided a list of the addresses of COVID-positive patients to the Alabama 911 Board, a state agency that distributes funding, technology, and now information to the state’s 85 local 911 response districts.
Leah Missildine, executive director of the Alabama 911 Board, said she forwards those addresses to the local 911 district, which enters the information into its computer dispatch system. If emergency personnel are called out to an address that has been flagged in the system, the responders will be alerted to take precautions to prevent infection.
Missildine said the policy was implemented after numerous state agencies expressed concerns about protecting first responders.
“The consideration was brought up by just numerous different folks involved, fire departments, police departments, 911 centers, the governor's office, the Alabama Department of Public Health,” Missildine said. “Just, globally almost, how do we keep people safe?”
The state has seen firsthand the dangers of having large numbers of emergency personnel unavailable due to the novel coronavirus. Tuscaloosa has announced that 31 fire fighters are being quarantined due to possible exposure to the virus and one has tested positive. In Mobile, nine police officers and seven fire fighters have tested positive for COVID-19. The policy of providing addresses of confirmed positive patients was in place before those test results came back.
Missildine said the request was presented to the state health department, which concluded it could release addresses but not names of COVID-19 patients to the 911 board. The first batch of addresses was received on Friday, March 20 and a new list has been sent every day since March 23.
“ADPH provided this information per state law and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has provided guidance to Alabama and other states on releasing this information as well,” Arrol Sheehan, public information director for Alabama Department of Public Health, said via email.
Massachusetts is also reporting patient addresses to its emergency personnel, after an order from the state’s health department, according to Vice News which first reported on the policies in Alabama and Massachusetts.
Normally, a patient’s address would not be released due to HIPAA, a federal health care privacy law designed to protect confidential health information from being disclosed without a patient’s permission.
HIPAA limits how much information the department can share with the public about confirmed cases of COVID-19 and other diseases. That’s why confirmed cases are often only described by the patient’s county of residence or other broad information that would make it difficult to identify an individual patient.
When public health agencies notify people who may have had close contact with a COVID patient, they do not include the patient’s name or any other identifying information.
In the case of 911 operators though, Sheehan cited a state law allowing the state health to “notify a third party of the presence of a contagious disease in an individual where there is a foreseeable, real or probable risk of transmission of the disease.”
Missildine said the 911 board is taking precautions to only share the data as needed.
“We protect that information all the way through,” Missildine said. “Not everybody has this information. Only somebody that will be coordinating response in that jurisdiction gets the information for that jurisdiction.”
The policy of providing sensitive health information of patients to first responders has concerned some privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU Alabama executive director Randall Marshall said the policy was unnecessary and questioned how much it would actually help keep first responders safe, given the mounting evidence that the disease is being spread by people who display no symptoms and likely have not been tested.
"Protecting the health of first responders is certainly an important priority that the state should be addressing,” Marshall said. “However, public health experts have noted that disclosing addresses does not ensure a first responder would be safe from exposure from asymptomatic individuals.
“Governor Ivey must take responsibility in updating state policies as new scientific understanding of the virus emerges, and that includes eliminating this unnecessary policy. It is incumbent upon the state to protect Alabamians while being no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary."
©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.