BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — It took weeks for the Kern County Health Department to start releasing more information about where positive cases of COVID-19 were within the county.
First it started with wide portions of the county broken up into sections such as Bakersfield West, Bakersfield East, the Valley, the Mountains, etc. Then, in May, officials finally releasing more detailed information such as race, gender, and zip codes.
But what most people didn't know is that, since April, the Kern County Health Department has been sending a list of addresses of positive COVID-19 patients to local first responders.
Jeff Drummond, an attorney out of Texas who specializes in HIPAA protections and medical record privacy, said based on guidelines from the U.S. Department of Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) the health department is allowed to disclose that information, even without the patient's permission.
"It's a disclosure for public health purposes. It's also a disclosure to somebody who would otherwise be at risk of personal harm if they didn't know this information." said Drummond. "In this current situation, what is reasonable is different than what it would be if we're not in a pandemic."
Drummond said on March 24, 2020 the OCR clarified guidelines about when information can be shared with first responders.
Those guidelines include the following instances: "In order to prevent or control spread of disease""When first responders may be at risk of infection"When the disclosure of protected health information is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public."
"Here, where the potential infection rate is so high and the potential damage is so high, it kind of ups the ante a little bit situationally." said Drummond.
According to the Kern County Public Health Department, Hall Ambulance, County of Kern Fire Dispatch, Bakersfield City Fire Dispatch, Kern County Sheriff's Office, and the Bakersfield Police Department receive the patient list.
The list includes addresses associated with a person who has tested positive at the residence, but not their name and not everyone at the local agencies receive the list.
"We still want it to be the minimum amount of people who get the information and the minimum amount of information that they get." said Drummond.
Dispatchers for the agencies are given the list and dispatchers then give guidance to first responders if they need to wear extra protection when responding to a call.
"The dispatcher should be, is sort of the contact point, it minimizes the number of people the information is disclosed to.
The Kern County Public Health Department said the current list is updated and patients are removed automatically from the system after 30 days. Despite the clarification in guidelines, Drummond said COVID-19 patients shouldn't be worried about their personal information getting out.
"You got to take a lot of comfort in that and you should take a lot of comfort in that a lot of people are afraid to disclose the information like the public health agencies themselves." Drummond said. "So that should give you some comfort that it's not likely that the information is going to get out."
Kern County Public Health said this is not the first time they've sent out a list of addresses like this, they also sent one out during the Ebola outbreak.