Public health vs. privacy; state officials strike a balance in COVID-19 response

Published: Mar. 9, 2020 at 7:17 PM EDT
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Should people with coronavirus be identified despite laws enacted to protect their privacy? Your medical information is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, but with public anxiety over coronavirus growing, we asked experts how far HIPAA should go.

In the midst of a public health emergency, people want answers.

"We're really walking the line and ensuring that we're following the law, but also enough information that we can do our jobs," said Vermont Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan.

Federal medical privacy laws like HIPPAA protect patient information from being released. Information like who has coronavirus, when they got it, and exactly where they live is private. How much information is released depends on the threat level of contamination.

"The law does allow us if there is a public health imminent threat, we can provide a little more information if we need to in order to protect the public's health," Dolan said.

Two weeks ago, a Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical resident with the coronavirus went to a party in White River Junction. State officials named a time and place where the person was in order to track down anyone that could have had contact. This past weekend officials announced a patient in Bennington County that has the virus, but didn't say much more.

"It really depends. There are occasions where we may go to the public, but we really try to avoid that," Dolan said.

Vermont medical privacy laws are some of the strongest HIPPAA laws in the country. But the state's small size can sometimes jeopardize privacy.

"You've got small communities where people might notice, 'Gee, he hasn't been out at the store lately.' And if a health provider says one of my patients in this town is ill, you may have violated HIPAA," said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield.

State officials say it's a fine line between protecting health privacy and making sure the public has the information they need. "Even though I know there are some people who are frustrated -- 'I need to know where these people being monitored live.' But imagine if that were you. We're protecting everyone," Dolan said.