The Grant County Health Department plans to ask those who test positive for the new coronavirus to voluntarily share that information with the Emergency Operations Center and the local dispatch so both agencies can track the person and — if law enforcement or first responders are called out to the individual’s residence — warn them to take precautions to keep from contracting the virus.
Law enforcement and first responders, essential jobs critical to the infrastructure of a community during a crisis or disaster, are at a high risk of exposure and spread of the virus, said County Commissioner Sam Palmer, the public information officer for the county’s coronavirus response.
Palmer said, in a rural area with limited resources, the community must be proactive about protecting law enforcement and first responders.
A dispatcher’s questions could mean the difference between identifying a case in advance or getting a first responder infected, he said. The dispatch screening guidelines are supposed to be based on the state health authority guidelines.
“Oregon Health Authority is asking that people let first responders know that they are positive for COVID-19 if they know that information and are able to provide it when contacting first responders,” said Lauren Wirtis, public information officer for the state’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center.
Valerie Maynard, Grant County Emergency Communications Agency director, said these concerns about privacy and public health came up in the 1980s and 1990s with HIV.
Maynard said, while she would follow the health department’s lead on whether or not to flag the residence of someone who tested positive for the virus, she still wants to run it by legal counsel.
Maynard said there are precautions for various other diseases law enforcement and first responders should be taking when they go out on calls as well.
Grant County Health Department Director Kimberly Lindsay said she understands the reason why law enforcement and emergency workers would want to know ahead of time.
“The health department is here to support our law enforcement and first responders,” Lindsay said. “These are unprecedented times.”
However, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ensures that a person’s health records remain undisclosed to the general public even after someone’s death. Thus, releasing the name of a person who contracted COVID-19 without a signed release would violate HIPAA.
Palmer said those in the medical field, such as doctors, nurses, and medical assistants, go through training on complying with HIPAA. Because the EOC staff are not in the medical field, they will not go through HIPAA training, he said.
Palmer said, in lieu of HIPAA training, they have all signed documents stating that if they were to share protected patient information they would go to jail.
“Anyone who shares patient health information would go to jail,” Palmer said.
Palmer said he has sent a proposal to state Rep. Mark Owens and Sen. Lynn Findley to take to the governor that would allow him to share confirmed COVID-19 cases with the EOC and dispatch without a signed release.
Palmer said, with limited personal protective equipment and limited law enforcement, the county does not have backup resources.
“If you lose your quarterback, you have no team,” he said.