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Sharing Addresses Of COVID-19 Patients With First Responders Raises Privacy Concerns

First responders say if they know areas where the virus is confirmed to be present, they can respond to calls near those locations with added safety precautions.
New Jersey National Guard
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

State health officials are sharing the addresses of patients who test positive for COVID-19 with first responders. The goal is to inform them about areas where the virus may be present so they can take safety precautions. But the move is raising privacy concerns.

911 dispatchers are already screening callers for symptoms related to COVID-19, but some first responders say more information is necessary to keep them safe.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood spoke about the importance of knowing addresses of COVID-19 patients at a press conference late last month. He said his department uses the information to look back 30 days and see if officers have responded to calls near those homes in case they need to be quarantined.

He said he also wanted information about people who have yet to be tested but are self-quarantined.

"So when fire, EMS or police are dispatched, we know what the hell we're walking into," he said. “We don’t know what we’re walking into, but that information is there and that information needs to be shared with first responders.”

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But with known community spread, inadequate testing and cases involving people who don’t display symptoms, University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn said first responders will never really know everyone who has the virus.

"So I don't see what the benefit of releasing that information is now when we can assume that most of the people who you come into contact with, have come in contact with the virus in one way or the other," he said.

Nunn said sharing addresses of COVID-19 patients could have unintended consequences.

“A person may be mistreated because they have tested positive, and it also could be something that would be a disincentive for someone to report and get the test because now they know their information is going to be shared with law enforcement,” he said.

Nunn’s concerns are echoed by Kara Gross, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“It is not clear how this information is being shared, who has access to the data, and what steps are being taken to protect this sensitive information,” she said in an emailed statement.

“…There is concern that first responders will be hesitant to respond to individuals with confirmed cases,” Gross continued. “This makes no rational sense as we have no idea who does and who does not have COVID-19, but providing information on known cases could have the unintended consequence of delaying necessary and critical life-saving care.”

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The federal government issued guidanceamid the coronavirus pandemic that said the health privacy law known as HIPAA allows for patients’ information to be shared without their authorization if first responders’ safety is at risk.

Gross suggested sharing confirmed case information could actually put first responders in danger.

“It will create a system where adequate protective gear and precautions are only implemented when responding to known cases,” she said.  “This puts all first responders who do not respond to known cases in a dangerous position, as they will not have the protective gear they need nor be required to take the same level of precautions that are needed to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Some fire departments and law enforcement agencies across the state say they have struggled to consistently secure enough protective equipment for their members. They say being aware of where the virus is known to have been present helps them prioritize when to use the equipment to the fullest extent.

Some first responders have tested positive for COVID-19 in Florida and hundreds are in quarantine because they were exposed to people with the virus.

Kenneth Nunn said state and local government leaders should ensure first responders have enough equipment to safely do their jobs, which he says means acting as if everyone they interact with has been exposed to the virus.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.