News23ABC I-Team Investigates


Kern County Public Health relying on data expert to release data

Posted at 5:38 PM, Sep 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 22:56:31-04

Very limited information has been released related to those who have died of COVID-19 in Kern County, including their ages. County health officials have said releasing that information would violate patients' privacy rights when it comes to their medical information. But 23ABC has learned the health department could have released that information early on, without violating those rights. 23ABC's Tori Cooper breaks down the legality of releasing that information and where your tax dollars are now being spent to get it.

The question is whether releasing the ages of those who have died from COVID-19 would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

According to the HIPAA statute, 164.5 c 2 Kern County Public Health had two choices. They could have scrubbed through the data themselves and removed identifying information outlined by the HIPAA statute or hired an expert statistician to determine what information can be released to the public.

They chose the second method: to hire a statistician. And that decision may now be impacting residents' tax dollars.

For several months 23ABC News has tried to get the Kern County Public Health Department to release more data about who is dying from COVID-19 in the community, including age ranges of the patients.

"We know this is something our community is very interested in and it is some information that we want to get out to our community, but we need to make sure we do it in a way that protects the people who have died and the family members of those people," explained Kim Hernandez, an epidemiologist with Kern County Public Health.

As of now, that information is still absent from the county's COVID-19 dashboard. Public health would only say that releasing that information could possibly violate HIPAA laws, and they are working with a statistician to determine if that data can be released.

23ABC spoke to attorney Jason Ziven of Sanders Roberts law firm in Los Angeles. He told 23ABC that the HIPAA statues allow public health to go two ways. To either use the expert designation rule where the county hires an expert statistician to look at the data or they could use the Safe Harbor rule where public health would have to remove 18 identifying factors.

"Name, telephone, number, fax number, email address, additionally geographic information can only be released within certain boundaries those boundaries are they can release the first three digits of the zip code of the patient," said Ziven.

Public health initially appeared to be using the Safe Harbor method when they released a map in May showing only the first three digits of the zip codes where positive COVID-19 patients were recovering. But then officials announced that they decided to retain an expert statistician who granted them the green light to release the full zip code of positive patients.

And by doing that: "Because we have already released information related to zip code in all of our cases that affect our abilities to release information regarding those deaths," said Hernandez.

Hernandez acknowledged during a press conference Thursday that by releasing the full zip code the county could no longer rely on the Safe Harbor method to determine if releasing patient data violates HIPAA rights. The county is now relying on the paid expert statistician to determine what data can be released next.

"So we are continuing to work with the statistician we do hope to provide more information soon," said Hernandez.

23ABC reached out to the statistician Khaled El Emam hired by the county three separate times but have not heard back. 23ABC also reached out to county officials to see how much taxpayer money is being spent on hiring the statistician and we are still waiting to hear back.