Black Caucus seeks end of COVID-19 identity sharing with law enforcement

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 11, 2020 3:13 PM CT | Published: May 11, 2020 10:27 AM CT

Leery of creating distrust among African Americans, the Tennessee Caucus of Black State Legislators is asking Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration to stop giving names and addresses of COVID-19-positive people to law enforcement.

Similarly, a conservative Republican lawmaker from Maury County is calling for the governor to cease contact tracing lists and sharing of COVID-19 information with local law officers, calling it an “infringement of personal privacy and liberty” in Tennessee.

The governor confirmed last week he authorized the Department of Health to share the identities of those who test positive with local law enforcement in an effort to protect first responders who might be called to the homes of people who have the disease.

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State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chairman of the Black Caucus, said the information could cause a “chilling effect” and keep people who don’t trust government from undergoing a COVID-19 test, potentially speeding the disease’s spread.

“Our membership has heard from many in the African American community who are concerned by this release of personal data without their knowledge, as well as many in the Hispanic community who fear possible other uses of the information,” Hardaway said in a statement.

“People feel their constitutional right to privacy is being violated without any warning. There are better ways to protect our first responders while, at the same time, giving proper notification to the citizens involved.”

Once local law enforcement reaches a memorandum of understanding with the state, they are to receive the information, according to Hardaway.

<strong>G.A. Hardaway</strong>

G.A. Hardaway

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings defended the practice Monday, May 11, at the daily briefing of the local COVID-19 task force, saying the memorandum between the state and Shelby County 911 dates to March 12. Memphis Police as well as the city fire department entered into an agreement with the 911 system shortly afterwards.

“We have to protect our first responders,” Rallings said.

Hardaway said Lee promised to work with the Black Caucus to come up with other solutions. The Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to questions about whether Lee is looking at alternatives.

Other members of the caucus encouraged more “diverse representation” when policy related to the COVID-19 pandemic is being considered.

Taking the matter one step further, Republican state Rep. Scott Cepicky of Maury County requested in a May 11 letter that the speakers of the House and Senate advise Lee to repeal the contact tracing and information sharing between the Health Department and law enforcement.

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“These lists are being used to single out individuals that have tested positive for the virus. However, 98% of those that contract the virus may experience little to no symptoms and will recover normally without any assistance,” Cepicky’s letter says. “I am concerned that the reports and lists will have an adverse effect on testing. As a result, Tennesseans will stop getting tested to protect their privacy.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris initially said Monday, May 11, 2020, he had reservations about the identity sharing too.

“We should be cautious around the release of private medical information. I don’t know if the state has a legal right to do it, but we’re not,” Harris said of Shelby County.

But after checking with the Shelby County Health Department, Harris said he agrees with the county’s policy of providing address information of people positive for COVID-19 to dispatchers so first responders will be certain to wear personal protective equipment as they enter a residence. The county’s policy is different from the state’s in that it does not provide the person’s identity, he said.

“But I do think the rationale is the same for both, it is so the first responder can know to wear appropriate PPE as they arrive,” Harris said.

Still, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner has not entered a memorandum of understanding with Health Department officials to share COVID-19 patient information, according to spokesman John Morris.

Tennessee has reported nearly 15,000 cases of COVID-19 with 243 deaths and 1,325 hospitalized. More than 7,500 have recovered, and 261,869 people have been tested, according to the state Health Department.

The state’s case count shows African Americans make up 31% of the cases and nearly a third of the deaths even though they are only about 12% of the state’s population. Shelby and Davidson counties, the state’s two largest urban areas, account for 3,260 and 3,400 of Tennessee cases.

<strong>Bill Lee</strong>

Bill Lee

Lee said late last week the U.S. Health and Human Services Department gave guidelines allowing states to share the information with law enforcement.

“It’s important to protect privacy and it’s important to protect the health of law enforcement and first responders,” Lee said.

He noted the Tennessee Department of Health goes by federal privacy regulations but that he and the department wanted to use the guidelines laid out by the federal government.

“This allows only those who will be interacting from a law enforcement standpoint with folks who are positives, and we believe that that’s appropriate to protect the lives of law enforcement,” Lee said.

Though people such as grocery store employees and health care workers could come into contact with people who carry the virus, Lee justified the decision by pointing out first responders and law enforcement personnel are “required” to interact with people who could be carrying COVID-19.

The Associated Press reported documents show an agreement was finalized April 3 between the Department of Health and Tennessee’s Emergency Communications Board to share the information.

“Health is disclosing to TECB a list of names and addresses of individuals documented as having tested positive, or received treatment, for COVID-19,” it states. “Health intends to update this list daily; after 30 days on the list, an individual’s name and address will roll off of this list.”

The Health Department can “cease disclosure” once Tennessee’s state of emergency is ended, the report shows.

The ACLU-Tennessee, pointing toward media reports that 32 sheriff’s offices and 35 police departments have entered the agreements, said sharing the information on those who test positive for COVID-19 does not protect first responders because many people have not been tested and many people who carry the virus are asymptomatic.

“First responders should always be taking precautions when entering any home and the state should ensure that they have the necessary protective gear to do so,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-Tennessee, in a statement.

“Disclosing the personal information of individuals who will never have contact with law enforcement raises fundamental concerns about privacy without yielding a significant public health benefit. It is incumbent that any government policy implemented during the pandemic be grounded in science and public health and be no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary.”


G.A. Hardaway Bill Lee Department of Health
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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