Around New England

Don’t Release Town-by-Town Numbers of Coronavirus Cases, Massachusetts Department of Public Health Says

March 29, 2020

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has asked cities and towns not to release the number of cases of coronavirus in their community, citing the privacy of patients.

A spokesman later clarified that it wasn’t an order, but some local public health officials thought it was, citing what they heard on a conference call last week, according to the Brockton Enterprise.

“We report publicly on county basis. Local boards of health know their positive cases,” said Marylou Sudders, secretary of the state Department of Public Health, during a press conference at the State House on Friday, March 27.

A reporter asked if a local board of selectmen, which is the highest board in most towns in Massachusetts, also have that information.

Sudders said no.

“Local boards of health because they’re really our extension, if you would, to do the contact tracing,” Sudders said.

Reporters pushed back, asking whether people ought to know at least the number of cases in their own town.

Sudders said patients’ privacy is jeopardized by the public getting too much information.

“So there is, this is where we try to balance public health and individual privacy, and to prevent people from being bullied. And there have been cases, particularly in the early part of the … pandemic, of individuals who have been outed on Facebook, or people assumed that someone had tested positive. And so that is the balance that we continue to try to strike. And I know this is not a complete answer for some people. But I will tell you: local boards of health know the individuals who test positive from their communities,” Sudders said.

One reporter asked if there might not be a danger from people thinking that their own community is safe if they don’t hear about the number of cases in their community.

Sudders said it should be clear from the countywide numbers the state is releasing each day that there is “community spread” of coronavirus across the state and among various age levels.

“I take the concern of communities thinking that they want to know. But, you know, if you share that kind of health information status about an individual, you also want to ensure that they are also safe and protected from bullying and the like and being spotted by someone,” Sudders said. “So, what I’m telling you is it t is a very constant conversation that we’re having. It’s one thing in Boston, but if you lived in a community of like several hundred people, you know, does that person want to be identified? There would be nothing to preclude a local board of health from saying, ‘We have 15 positive cases,’ in their community.”

The Brockton Enterprise reported on Saturday, March 28 that some local public health officials south of Boston had stopped giving local updates on the number of cases or coronavirus after hearing from state public health officials, but that others are continuing to release the numbers.

The Enterprise story reports that the state’s public health agency is also denying public access to information about an unrelated health matter:  a town-by-town breakdown from last year of cases of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s rule on patient privacy to justify the denial, though another state agency disagrees.

The Enterprise story states:

The state supervisor of records has questioned the department’s use of that standard, saying it is “uncertain how disclosing the names of towns would lead to the identification of the individuals affected” and The Enterprise continues to appeal the Department of Public Health’s multiple denials.

 

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