Austin (KXAN) — Austin health leaders expressed concerns that people in the community are experiencing shame and fears related to testing and possible contraction of the disease.
At the weekly Austin Public Health video briefing, leaders emphasized the safety and privacy precautions that go into COVID-19 testing — reiterating to the public that there should be no embarrassment around contracting COVID-19.
This comes as Austin sees a “substantial increase” in new COVID-19 cases reported in Austin-Travis County, with a 90% increase over last week and the seven-day moving average rate increasing as well.
Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said that Austin-Travis County has more than doubled the amount of COVID-19 testing it has been doing in the past week. Austin Public Health has set goals to ramp up COVID-19 testing through the summer, then maintain that level through the end of the year.
“There should be no guilt or shame associated with having illness of any kind. And I am concerned that there’s guilt or shame associated with folks who get this,” Escott said.
“It’s going to happen, a significant number of us are gonna get this at some period of time,” he continued. “Particularly if we don’t get a vaccine in a timely fashion.”
“It’s not something we should be ashamed of, but it is something we need to work together to control. And that means being as open and honest as you can with those who may have been exposed so that they know and can prevent exposure to others,” Escott said.
What information can’t be shared
Escott explained that if someone was exposed to COVID-19 at a workplace, APH will not disclose to the workplace who that person was.
“Employers don’t have the right to know the medical information of employees,” Escott said.
He explained that when APH case investigators are going through their process, they will generally call a business owner or manager if an exposure happened in their facility.
“There’s no disclosure of who that individual was — and there’s an attempt to collect information about who else was working at that period of time and any customers that may have been present at that period of time,” he said.
For those who test positive, he encourages them to share as much information as they are comfortable with to other people who may have been exposed to them.
“We go through great lengths to ensure that information stays safe and secure,” he said.
APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pinchette added, “if for some reason you do become a [COVID-19] case and you are contacted by one of our case investigators, know the information you share with us is protected by privacy laws.”
In an email after the press conference, Austin Public Health explained to KXAN that by law, it is required to update the database used by first responders to mark the addresses where people are “under health monitoring” by public health.
APH said that only Austin Police has the authorization to see these notices and the only information they will see when they pull up an address is whether there is “Universal Caution” for a health condition at that address or whether there is “COVID-19 Caution” for a person there.
Any specifics beyond the “caution” notice are not included in the database, Austin Public Health said. These cautions are listed so that APD can put on the proper protective equipment when responding to those locations.
Austin Public Health also noted that Austin police do not have access to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), which offers data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information.
Pinchette said that contact information you share with the health department for testing or case investigation will not be passed off to law enforcement or other entities.
“It’s very, very important that you are able to share contact information with us and you can do that without fear of retaliation,” she said. “We don’t share that information with any enforcement bodies, but our goal is to mitigate and squash an outbreak, should it occur within a setting — trying to flatten a curve — and that’s one way we do it.”
In addition to COVID-19 testing through private practices, hospital systems, clinics, or retail pharmacies like CVS, you can also get tested for COVID-19 for free at the Austin Public Health drive up site if you take the screening questionnaire and meet the criteria.
No insurance is required to get tested through APH.