City staff and representatives disagree with Rock County officials, who believe sharing data related to COVID-19 cases would not address imminent threats to the community.
City Council President Rich Gruber in a March 29 email to County Administrator Josh Smith said city officials need information from the county to help plan their response to the public health crisis.
Specifically, city officials have asked for geographic data showing in which communities people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 live.
Local news media and city officials have shared concerns about the county’s choice to not share details on cases of COVID-19 in the county.
So far, the county has been tight lipped on the following information:
- In what communities people with confirmed cases live.
- Whether people with confirmed cases visited large public places while infected.
- Ages of people infected.
- The number of people hospitalized with the disease.
- Whether any Rock County residents have recovered from the disease.
Smith in a response to Gruber stuck with the message county officials continue to push: Everyone should act as though everyone else has COVID-19 so it does not continue to spread.
“I understand that having more detailed data may make us feel more in control and better able to respond in some way,” Smith said. “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, among other more issues.”
County officials continue to stress that the number of confirmed cases in Rock County is smaller than the actual number of people infected because of lack of testing capability.
The county health department is tracking cases in Rock County and would make municipalities aware if a “extensive concentration” of cases occur in one area, said Kelsey Cordova, public information officer for the health department.
People who have tested positive for the disease are instructed to tell anyone with whom they have come into close contact, Cordova said.
To help first responders, the county has added addresses of people with confirmed cases to the county’s computer-aided police and fire dispatch system. A notification will be given to first responders if they are sent to a home where a person is infected.
Mark Freitag in a March 24 email encouraged council members to reach out to the county about the lack of information sharing.
“I don’t agree with the decisions and will continue to lobby the issue. I encourage you to do likewise,” Freitag said.
Council member Jim Farrell in an interview with The Gazette said the city does not expect the county to share information that would jeopardize the privacy of individuals.
Farrell said he does not see how sharing geographic information or the ages of people infected would cause any harm.
Health officials across the United States have given different interpretations of how the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, should affect the sharing of information during the health crisis.
HIPAA addresses patient privacy and prevents medical information being shared by health care workers or other officials. It does not prevent an individual from sharing that information if they choose to.
Smith in an email to Gruber said HIPAA indicates a health professional has “broad and sole discretion to determine when the disclosure of health information (PHI) is appropriate.”
The health professional for Rock County is Public Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval, Smith said.
“In this instance, she (Sandoval) must balance protecting client privacy rights with whether there is an ‘imminent threat’ if this information is not shared publicly,” Smith said. “She has determined that sharing this data would not help address any such imminent threat, and that client privacy outweighs the need to release information.”
Farrell in an email to Smith said he is disagrees with Sandoval’s decision making.
“The City Administration and City Council need to known the occurrences in our City. The Chief Health Officer is misguided,” Farrell said in an email to Smith.
“I will continue to advocate for the citizens that elected me. Your Chief Health Officer is not elected but wields a lot of authority. It is too bad bureaucracy wins.”
Farrell said he has considered bringing a resolution to the city council urging the county to provide information.