By David Loomis
INDIANA – “How much should the public know about who has the Coronavirus?”
The headline in the March 28 edition of The New York Times foreshadowed questions of local elected officials interviewed March 31 during an installment of an online series of live-streamed pandemic-themed programs sponsored by the local nonprofit Center for Community Growth. Among bipartisan local officials interviewed Tuesday were Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess and state Rep. Jim Struzzi.
Rep. Struzzi was asked about a reported lack of responsiveness and transparency at the local hospital and the local office of the state health department. Those are the community’s front lines in the declared war on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, because of HIPAA requirements and state and federal laws, a lot of information can’t be provided to the general public,” Rep. Struzzi said. “They can’t tell where the person was, that sort of thing, without violating federal privacy laws.”
REP. STRUZZI’S SUMMARY of what local health-care providers said may be accurate. But what they say also happens to be wrong.
The federal law’s privacy provisions were drafted to protect an individual’s personal medical records, not to hide aggregated data about a community or a population, especially during a pandemic. Nevertheless, health-care providers routinely invoke the law to cover their … tracks. (Local health-care facilities are not the only local institutions to execute similar dodges behind federal privacy laws.)
The New York Times story reported:
Using the law as a justification for limiting the release of aggregate data about the coronavirus is “ridiculous,” according to Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine in New York City.
Prof. Caplan is among many experts who say the coronavirus is likely to spur a reassessment of medical privacy laws. Already, the Trump Administration waived some provisions of the law ….
“HIPAA was written for a time when there were paper charts,” Prof. Caplan said. The coronavirus, he said, “will cause us to rethink a lot of things.”
“We will also have to plan for better data exchange and testing,” he said.
Rep. Struzzi elaborated in an April 1 email. He described a state health department response to a question about delays in getting coronavirus test results.
I expressed my concerns after the first positive case was announced in Indiana County. I was concerned that it took more than 7 days (almost 10 by my understanding) to get back the test results and when I asked about the process to notify the community of where this person may have been they cited HIPAA and said only the county could be provided. I agree that it would be better if as much information as possible could be provided to help stop the spread of this virus.
Meanwhile, Indiana County’s confirmed cases now number six, up from last week’s two. The numbers are small, but the rate of increase is nevertheless exponential. Statewide, Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest stay-at-home order now extends to every Pennsylvanian.
IN ADDITION TO Rep. Struzzi’s question about slo-mo test-results, Indiana County residents may have other critical public-health concerns — about face masks, gowns, splash shields and protective equipment for first-line health-care workers; about hospital capacity, numbers of admissions, numbers of cases, numbers of tests, contact traces, hot spots, et cetera. Who speaks for Indiana County and its pandemic plans? Who answers questions of county residents and their concerns?
During Tuesday’s online interviews, Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess suggested a good policy for the county’s pandemic publicity.
“You can’t have enough information,” she said.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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