AUSTIN (KXAN) — Addresses confirmed COVID-19 cases are being shared between public health and law enforcement agencies in Texas.
The sharing of personal information regarding COVID-19 cases is permitted under Texas state law, and follows federal guidance from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, to allow for notification and treatment, as well as to protect first responders.
Ed Piker, division chief of Austin Travis County Emergency Medical Servies, said Monday that addresses of COVID-19 cases are uploaded to a first responder database, which can only be accessed by personnel with Criminal Justice Information clearance.
“If we know that it’s something that, let’s say, is a complaint that requires immediate action the alteration and response is minimal,” Piker told KXAN. “In some cases where it’s a lower-priority complaint, we might be able to limit the number of responders in the infectious environment.”
The database is utilized for any high-risk disease that is being monitored by public health officials, like measles or tuberculosis.
According to Texas Health and Safety Code Section 81.046, personal information of confirmed cases is only meant to be kept as long as a case is considered active.
“In counties where the DSHS regional office acts as the local health department, dispatch is being notified,” a DSHS spokesperson wrote to KXAN in an email.
Similar information sharing in other parts of the country has drawn concern by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told the Tennessee Lookout that privacy rights should be protected even during a pandemic.
“Not only is it not sound policy, it is not focused on providing the protective gear that officers need,” Weinberg told the online publication, which first reported a letter written by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee advising local law enforcement agencies to enter into an agreement with the state department of health.
Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the privacy advocacy non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it’s important that personal information doesn’t disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.
“We saw this exact sort of thing that happened during the AIDS crisis,” Guariglia said. “When somebody is infected, when they are exposed to a disease or a virus, and that information spreads, there’s a lot of stigma and there’s a lot of shame.”
Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler said public health information provided to dispatch is completely confidential and is a useful tool to help protect officers in the field.
“If they need to put on protective wear, whatever they need to handle that call, whether it’s fire, police, or EMS going to that location, they need to know what they’re going into,” Cutler said.
According to an online tracker of COVID-19 related lawsuits, 958 complaints have been filed in the United States, 79 of which involve civil rights claims not concerning prison conditions or corrections officials.
KXAN Politics Reporter John Engel is reaching out to Central Texas public health and law enforcement officials about whether COVID-19 case information is being shared and, if so, how that information is being protected. Watch the full story tonight at 6 p.m. on KXAN.