Several local public health agencies in Colorado are sharing information with emergency dispatchers about households where people have tested positive for the new coronavirus.
The agencies say the practice provides a warning to first responders to take extra precautions when dispatched to those homes, but privacy advocates are raising concerns.
Authorities in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas and El Paso counties confirmed to The Colorado Sun that they follow the practice, first brought to light Tuesday in a national Associated Press investigation. The AP found that coronavirus information sharing between public health officials and emergency dispatchers is widespread across the U.S.
“It’s just another layer of protection first responders can be armed with when they are going to those calls for service,” said Jacqueline Kirby, a spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
Sharing the information is legal under state and federal law, officials say, but privacy experts worry that doing so is dangerous and unnecessary and that it could even lead to a situation where people are afraid to seek out testing out of fear that their medical history may be disclosed.
“It seems to me it’s just a pointless invasion of privacy that really serves no purpose,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.
Silverstein said that since so many people who have the virus have been unable to get testing, and with a large share of those infected not showing symptoms, first responders really should be assuming that they are coming into contact with someone who has the disease on every call.
“When we sacrifice some privacy for some government purpose, we have to balance: How important is the purpose that’s going to be achieved and does that outweigh the invasion of privacy?” Silverstein said. “Here, there’s just no way that disclosure can serve to really protect first responders.”
Silverstein worries that public safety departments in Colorado may not have set guidelines and standards for how to handle people’s medical history, not to mention rules around potential abuses of that information. He also wonders if people who are tested for the disease are warned that their medical information could be shared with law enforcement.
“It seems that disclosure should be an important part of the testing procedure,” Silverstein said.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said that early in the crisis it asked for guidance from the attorney general’s office on sharing infection information with first responders. But Ian Dickson, a spokesman for the department, says the information sharing is now “irrelevant due to the large number of positive cases” and because the virus is being spread through community transmission.
Dickson said the state never shared information with first responders and that the practice was only done at the local level. “This information was only intended to be shared on an as-needed basis for the safety of first responders as they responded to calls,” he said. “It would be inappropriate for law enforcement agencies to access and use the data to target individuals for enforcement.”
But despite the state saying the information sharing is no longer necessary, The Sun found a number of agencies still follow the practice.
Kirby said public health officials don’t give the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office the names of people who test positive for coronavirus, just the addresses they are associated with. She said deputies are instructed to don personal protective equipment — known as PPE — when responding to every call. PPE is of secondary importance when deputies are responding urgently to emergencies, she said.
In terms of privacy concerns, Kirby said law enforcement officers deal every day with sensitive personal information and take seriously their responsibility to safeguard the data. Those who breach that responsibility are investigated by internal affairs.
“We understand what the dangers and the repercussions of sharing that sensitive information could be,” she said.
Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, says it has been sharing infection information with the sheriff’s offices in its jurisdiction since early in the pandemic. They have only ever provided addresses, however, and the information is transmitted through encrypted email with a warning that state and federal law requires the data to be held strictly confidential.
“While we always recommended that the first responder utilize appropriate precautions, this was something we were utilizing since it was such a new pandemic we were dealing with,” said Michele Askenazi, Tri-County’s director of emergency response, preparedness and communicable disease surveillance.
After March, when it became clear there was community transmission, Arapahoe County ceased its request for the information sharing. But Tri-County has continued to send the infection data to Adams and Douglas counties on a “daily basis,” Askenazi said.
Askenazi said the information sharing is revisited every month.
Cmdr. Mike Wagner at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office says Boulder County Public Health began sharing information with emergency dispatch centers at the request of public safety officials.
“We receive very limited information,” Wagner said.
Namely, dispatchers are given an address where someone has been confirmed to have the coronavirus along with a date that the record of their infection can be “purged from our files.” Names are not provided, he said.
“If fire/EMS/law enforcement are dispatched to an address with a confirmed COVID-19 case, this allows the responders to don the proper PPE prior to entering the residence or making contact with anyone inside,” he said. “The information was provided due to lack of PPE for all calls, so this allowed first responders to use the stronger PPE when a confirmed risk was being encountered.”
The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment shares only addresses where people infected with coronavirus live, leaving out names, the agency says.
A spokeswoman for the city said the goal is to make sure first responders “are aware and can don the appropriate protective gear if they are called to that address.”
The Associated Press found that public health officials in at least two thirds of U.S. states are sharing the addresses of people who tested positive with first responders — from police officers to firefighters to EMTs.
Public health officials in at least 10 states, according to the AP, go further and also share the names: Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee. Wisconsin did so briefly but stopped earlier this month. There have been 287,481 positive cases in those states, mostly in New Jersey.
The Colorado Sun did not find a public health agency in the state that was sharing both the addresses and names of people infected with coronavirus with first responders. The Associated Press did not say which Colorado public health agency is or was giving names of people infected with coronavirus to first responders.
According to the national Fraternal Order of Police, more than 100 police officers in the United States have died from the coronavirus. Hundreds more have tested positive, resulting in staffing crunches.
A 41-year-old El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy, Jeff Hopkins, died in April of the coronavirus. He worked in the county’s jail.
The Associated Press contributed to this report