A Janesville Fire Department battalion chief who also serves on the Rock County Board said the county isn’t doing enough to keep emergency responders safe.
Ron Bomkamp said that until first responders are dispatched, they have no idea the locations of county residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.
It is affecting him personally.
“I can’t believe people don’t want to protect our first responders,” Bomkamp said. “I can’t sleep at night knowing this is going on. We’re not doing everything we can to protect these people, and to me that’s just wrong.”
The health department provides the Rock County 911 Communications Center with the addresses of those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Dispatchers share that information with first responders who are sent to those addresses.
“The problem is we’re not learning about places until we’re going there,” Bomkamp said. “Going to a place at 2 a.m. and finding out right then is the problem. ... It’s going to get missed somehow, and this would just be another step to not miss it and helps with planning. … If it’s a fire at a nursing home of five people or 100 people, it makes a world of difference.
“We’re trying to prep for the worst-case scenario, and without that information, we can’t do that,” he said. “It could easily be missed the way they’re doing it to no fault of the 911 center.”
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, otherwise known as HIPAA, is in play regarding the sharing of health information.
HIPAA is intended to protect patient privacy and prevent medical information being shared by health care workers and officials. Marie-Noel Sandoval, public health officer for Rock County, has the authority to determine when and to whom COVID-19 information is released.
Bomkamp said the fire department is asking to be told the hundred blocks of homes with residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and locations of health care facilities with known cases of the virus. The department is asking for the information for internal use only, he said.
Bomkamp said to this point Sandoval has refused to give the fire department this information, saying releasing patient information could cause a threat to the patient.
The Gazette was not able to reach Sandoval for comment Monday.
“Basically, what she’s saying is patient privacy is more important than the first responders’ health,” Bomkamp said. “HIPAA states if there is an immediate threat, the health director has the ability to share information with first responders. That clause is in there for situations exactly like this. That’s the whole reason it’s there.”
Two weeks ago, paramedics responded to an incident at Oak Park Place before it was announced the facility had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The fire department was not notified of the positive cases, but Bomkamp said he believes the county knew the virus had hit the facility. So far, none of the first responders in that incident have exhibited symptoms or been quarantined, he said.
“It’s pretty much mostly for planning before there is an incident. The health department knew on Friday if not before then that there was a place with COVID-19, and we sent people in there. If we had known before then, we could have had arrangements made to allow for less contamination both going in and coming out,” he said.
“If they would just give us the address, that’s all we want. We won’t give it out, but we can go back in our records and say we’ve been there, and then we can take precautions and know what needs to be done and make sure our people know they may have been exposed.”
The fire department has implemented changes because of the pandemic. Only one paramedic enters a situation if possible, and if there are signs of COVID-19 infection, the department calls a reserve ambulance. They couldn’t do that for the Oak Park Place call because the county didn’t notify the department, Bomkamp said.
The reserve ambulance has plastic draped inside to seal off the driver from the back of the ambulance where patients are treated. All surfaces are wiped clean after each call in all ambulances like usual.
All first responders are treating every call as a possible exposure, Bomkamp said.
“What if there was a fire in that building and we had to remove the residents? Where are we going to take them if they have COVID-19? We need to be able to do that planning ahead of time, and we can’t do that without information.”
“We’ve transferred several COVID-19-positive patients. We treat everybody as if they have it. We are assuming that they are positive, but if the health department doesn’t tell us, there is no way for us to know for sure.”
Rock County Board Chairman Russ Podzilni said the health department is acting within the law, but he is also hoping for more information.
“The county health officer has the final say on that, and I or (County Administrator) Josh Smith cannot overrule the decision. I would like to see more information. I recently talked with her (Sandoval), and she agreed with me and said they are going to try to share some of that information.”
Podzilni said one idea mentioned to him was the sharing of ZIP codes for positive cases. He believes one of the health department’s concerns is targeting victims, but that wouldn’t make a difference if cases continue to rise.
Bomkamp has thought about bringing to the county board a resolution asking that more information be shared, but he said it won’t likely happen because the resources should be used to fight the virus in other ways.
He hopes the county begins notifying first responders in advance so they can be better prepared.
“This is a no-brainer. This should have been done a long time ago. It’s just going to the command staff and giving us information we need to know for our health,” he said.
The Janesville City Council on Monday approved a resolution urging Rock County officials to share more information on positive COVID-19 cases.
The resolution passed 6-1 with Doug Marklein casting the sole opposing vote.
Specifically, the resolution asks for the county to provide municipality and ZIP code information for those who have tested positive for the disease and urges congressional adjustment of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act so information can be more readily obtained during times of emergency.
The council passed the resolution with limited discussion.
Council members Jim Farrell and Richard Gruber, who requested the resolution, said the resolution spoke for itself and felt information should be shared with municipalities as soon as possible.
Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes and City Manager Mark Freitag have asked the county multiple times for nonconfidential information from the health department and County Administrator Josh Smith, according to a city memo.
City officials maintain the information they are looking for is nonconfidential and not protected by HIPAA. County Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval has cited HIPAA as a reason not to share the information, according to the memo. In cases of emergency, health officers such as Sandoval have the authority to release information to “protect the public health and welfare,” according to the memo.
“The council president and other common council members find that release of data by geographic voter precinct or even U.S. Census Bureau defined block would be non-confidential, slightly more ‘neighborhood specific,’ and more valid and useful for local government emergency planning purposes of tracking virus concentration and spread, and, more material for planning purposes by nature and source,” the resolution reads.
County health officials have said they would let municipalities know if there were “hot spots” of cases in communities.
But when Oak Park Place nursing home confirmed two positive cases, the county initially chose not to share the name of the nursing home, per the request of the nursing home’s director.
The resolution is not the council’s first effort at getting information. Gruber wrote an email to Smith on March 29 asking for the same information. Smith again declined to accommodate.
“I understand that having more detailed data may make us feel more in control and better able to respond in some way,” Smith said in his response. “However, a continued fight over sharing of data about a non-representative subset of the cases in our community only serves to take time away from the more important focus of efforts to flatten the curve and plan for a potential surge of cases ...”
A newcomer to politics grabbed the most votes in the Janesville City Council race, ousting the current council president, who lost by fewer than 50 votes.
Susan Johnson received the most votes April 7 with 7,761, or 25.95%, according to results released Monday night.
Incumbents Paul Williams and Paul Benson retained their seats with 6,962 and 6,450 votes, respectively.
Council President Richard Gruber was the lowest vote-getter, tallying 6,409 votes, 41 behind Benson.
“I think since I was the top vote-getter, it is pretty decisive that people in Janesville do want change,” Johnson said. “... I believe they want more community engagement. I think that is really why I won.”
A fifth candidate, William Beil, ended his candidacy in February, days after The Gazette published a story about a 1998 domestic violence conviction against him.
Gruber said Monday night it was too early to decide whether he would ask for a recount, but he was leaning toward not requesting one. He said he believed the voters had spoken.
Janesville saw a historic number of people voting absentee, with 12,424 absentee ballots issued and 11,412 returned. That eclipsed the 2016 presidential election, when a record 9,686 absentee ballots were issued.
Officials statewide encouraged voters to vote absentee because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The April 7 in-person election caused controversy across the state.
Still, 3,306 people voted in person, City Manager Mark Freitag said at Monday’s city council meeting.
Benson was appointed to the city council last year to fill a seat left vacant by former council member Jens Jorgensen.
Williams served on the council from 2000 to 2008 and returned in 2016.
The three winners agreed that helping the community through the pandemic should be the council’s top priority for the immediate future.
Johnson and Williams said the council needs to reconsider its priorities moving forward and decipher between needs and wants.
The proposed indoor sports complex is a project that might have to be put on the back burner while the council addresses economic issues such as high unemployment and loss of revenue from room taxes, Williams said.
Johnson said she is concerned about lead abatement efforts that require people who might be struggling financially to pay for some or all of the cost to replace lead sources in their homes.
Benson believes the council still has the “bandwidth” to address ongoing projects, such as ARISE downtown revitalization and the proposed sports complex, which will keep the city moving forward.
Jeffrey A. Holte
Kathryn L. Platson
George F. Porter
Alton Glenn Schlegel
Megan Michelle York