In an increasing number of cities and states, local governments are collecting the addresses of people who test positive for coronavirus and sharing the lists with police and first responders.
Law enforcement officials say this information sharing – which is underway in Massachusetts, Alabama and Florida, and parts of North Carolina – will help keep officers and paramedics safe when they answer calls to the homes of infected people. First responders can take extra precautions in these cases to avoid being exposed to the virus, say state health officials and local police officials.
But some public health experts and privacy advocates have raised concerns about the police maintaining an address list of confirmed coronavirus cases. They say it could make people reluctant to see a doctor or get tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, due to fear of being profiled by law enforcement.
“With any infectious disease, there will be stigma and discrimination as to who has it,” said Robert Greenwald, professor and director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School. “If you are in a situation where the word begins to come out only if you are filtered, your address is on a list that goes to first responders, this discourages filtering for people who do not want to be on this list. ”
Greenwald and three other public health experts also questioned the usefulness of an address list with confirmed cases, noting that since the coronavirus has spread so widely, first responders should assume that anyone ‘they meet could be infected.
However, officials and police officers said the information was a useful reminder to exercise extra caution on the ground, beyond the usual security measures.
Officers who are sent to an address where someone has tested positive can prepare by wearing full protective gear, said Deputy Chief Brian Long of the Burlington, North Carolina police department where the local health shares the addresses of positive tests. For calls where the risk is less clear, such as when the caller indicates that someone at home is sick, officers use their own judgment, depending on the urgency of the call, on the precautions to take.
“Here in Burlington, we only have about 139 police officers, so we can’t afford a significant drop in staff,” said Long. “We must be able to maintain public safety. This is a major concern for us as a department – managing the health of our organization so that we are there and ready to go. “
How Address Sharing Works
On March 18, Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order making Massachusetts the first state to order local health boards to share the addresses of people who test positive for coronavirus with police and paramedics. The names of those who tested positive are omitted from the shared data.
Scott Hovsepian, a Waltham, Massachusetts police officer and the president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a union, said he appreciated the information sharing. “The health department obtains information from health care providers, and what they provide to our chief dispatcher are addresses. “
“All indications are that there is a confirmed case at this address – it’s just the address,” said Hovsepian, adding that in some agencies these addresses are given to the police during calls while on the move.
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Police across the country are already gathering as much information as possible from 911 callers to protect officers from potential exposure to the coronavirus. Many agencies have asked 911 dispatchers to ask callers a series of questions to help determine if arriving police, firefighters, or paramedics could be exposed, according to police interviews and police investigations Executive Research Forum, which helps law enforcement to share information. on how to respond to the pandemic.
These questions, which vary from agency to agency, include asking if someone in the appellant’s household has tested positive or has contacted someone who has been or is in quarantine, present symptoms of the coronavirus or recently traveled. If the responses indicate a risk, the police may be asked to take a report over the phone (in the event of a non-emergency), wear protective equipment or meet the complainants outside.
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Some agencies have gone further, asking – or requiring – local health authorities to share the addresses of people who have tested positive or in quarantine, even in cases where there is no directive across the country. State calling for information sharing. These addresses are then entered into the computerized dispatch system, where they appear if someone calls 911 from one of the listed addresses.
Mike Chitwood, the sheriff of Volusia County, Florida, said he had to beat his local health department, in Facebook posts and interviews with the local press, to give his agency the addresses of people whose test was positive. The updated lists are sent to his agency every evening.
“I told them they were putting the lives of first responders at risk,” recalls Chitwood. “We are not asking for names and we are not putting up signs in front yards, and we are not publishing a list, but it is important that our MPs know if they are responding to a call from someone who has been put in quarantine ” . ”
He added: “It is obvious: If you know someone who may have a life-threatening illness, why would you not make first responders available? “
The Florida state emergency operations center said on Tuesday that the addresses of those tested positive were now shared with first responders from across the state.
In other cities and counties, chiefs of police and sheriffs have said they are desperate for the addresses of people who have been tested or exposed.
Jennifer Tejada, police chief at Emeryville, California, Bay Area, said that she was unable to obtain such information from her local health unit. “It unnecessarily puts first responders at risk,” she said in an interview. “Relying on callers to self-declare shows how the police were left alone to navigate the virus. “
Rather than relying on data, “we rely on the good nature of humans,” she said.
The Alameda County public health department, which oversees Emeryville, disagrees that the information would be helpful.
“Given that COVID-19 is widespread in our community, we are concerned that disclosure of the names and addresses of known cases of COVID-19 will provide first responders with an incorrect assessment of the risk and may in fact lead to reduced security for our first responders. “, Neetu Balram, spokesperson for the department, said in an email.
The need for protective equipment
Not all first responders who receive COVID-19 patient addresses are public servants. Across the country, it is common for ambulance services to be outsourced to suppliers. Arrol Sheehan, spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said in an email that the addresses of people tested positive for COVID-19 landed in the hands of private companies that provide first responder services. .
Address sharing in Alabama aims to protect first responders, she added, noting that only addresses are shared, not names.
But civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about the sharing of these addresses by health services – whether with the police, paramedics, or private companies.
“It is unclear how this information sharing takes place, or what precautions the government uses to share sensitive data,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, in an email.
“Who is responsible for ensuring that the information is not misused or abused? How many people can access the data, and who monitors this access? Who will be responsible for ensuring that information is securely deleted once an order is placed? Even in the event of a public health emergency, the government must do everything to protect the rights of people who are sick or at risk of illness. ”
The Massachusetts ACLU is concerned that police may cross reference addresses with other databases. And if there is only one person at an address, matching the address with a name becomes much easier.
Sharing the addresses of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 is not a violation of medical privacy laws, according to guidelines issued by the Civil Rights Office of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
However, just because a practice is not illegal does not mean that it is accepted as sound public health policy. Public health experts have questioned the value of address lists because infected people may be asymptomatic or unaware that they have been exposed.
“You might as well give the phone book to first responders,” said Greenwald, the professor of health policy, who wrote an open letter to Baker last month opposing his Massachusetts decree.
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He and others are concerned that first responders may be less vigilant – or not receive protective equipment – when they go to homes that have not been reported for coronavirus cases.
“I fear that sharing this information gives EMS companies the right to have employees in spaces without total protection,” said Dr. Rohini Haar, emergency physician and professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley. .
In Alabama, where the state health department has said information sharing is allowed, some cities, including Huntsville, have chosen not to give first responders the list of addresses.
“Their policy is to take security measures,” said Kelly Schrimsher, a spokesperson for the city of Huntsville, “and to assume that everyone they come in contact with may have the virus.”