Tennessee to stop sharing COVID-positive information with law enforcement

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 28, 2020 9:16 AM CT | Published: May 27, 2020 1:37 PM CT

Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration is putting an end to a highly-criticized policy of sharing COVID-positive information with 911 boards and law enforcement agencies across the state.

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, which criticized the information sharing agreements, was pleased with the move.

But Black Caucus Chairman G.A. Hardaway said late Wednesday

the caucus “remains uncomfortable with the executive branch’s seemingly whimsical flirtations with our federal and state constitutions.”

“The TBCSL boasts with the pride of patriots, of a serious and permanent relationship with the U.S. Constitution, the document which guarantees our individual liberties and collective freedom. We favor the decision to cease the illegal sharing of information; however, we’re deeply concerned with the rationale, which indicates operational convenience is the driving factor, not the constitutional right to privacy enjoyed by the citizens of Tennessee.”

Brent Easley, the governor’s legislative director, sent a letter to lawmakers Wednesday, May 27, notifying them the state will no longer send agencies a daily list of names and addresses for those who test positive for the virus.

Another state official told first responders that those who interact with the public should handle every situation as if personal protective equipment is needed.

Black Caucus urges governor to stop COVID information-sharing with police

“As the supply chain for PPE has stabilized and our understanding of COVID-19 has increased, the Department of Health has determined the disclosure of information regarding COVID-19 cases is no longer warranted. Therefore, effective, Sunday, May 31, 2020, the department will cease disclosing this information,” a letter from Easley states.

The Governor’s Office also sent a message to law enforcement and first responder agencies Wednesday notifying them a memorandum of understanding would take effect this weekend ending the sharing of information.

The letter from Todd Skelton, an attorney for the governor’s COVID-19 Unified Command and Economic Recovery Group, says the Department of Health discontinued the policy mainly because the supply chain for personal protective equipment stabilized.

It also notes police and medical responders should treat their work with the public as if every person has the virus.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency “has been supporting local procurement efforts, and, to date, TEMA’s logistics efforts around PPE have resulted in the shipment over over 1.4 million PPE items to first responders and law enforcement around the state,” the letter says.

TEMA also will ship KN95 masks to local education associations and first responders and N95 respirators to emergency medical personnel to “bolster” supplies, the letter adds.

The letter also points out the “prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases may be creating a false sense of security. Individuals who have COVID-19 but who have not sought testing because they do have symptoms may unintentionally transmit the virus to your personnel because the need to wear appropriate PPE was not apparent,” the letter states.

Therefore, first responders and law enforcement are “encouraged” to treat all close encounters with people with “appropriate precautions,” wearing PPE, keeping social distance and following federal guidelines.

The idea was to protect first responders when they went to people’s homes and might run into people positive for the virus, but Lee drew fire when reports surfaced about the policy.

<strong>Bill Lee</strong>

Bill Lee

The governor told reporters recently the policy was “temporary” after a mix of lawmakers said it was violating people’s rights to privacy and hurting statewide testing.

“In the midst of imminent danger, as was part of the unknown of COVID” early in the pandemic, “temporary” decisions had to be made, the governor said two weeks ago.

Memphis Police Chief Michael Rallings said earlier that a memorandum of understanding between the state and Shelby County’s 911 board had been in place since early April and that information about a person with COVID-19 is given by police dispatchers in address form only, without names being used.

Shelby County also has been providing COVID-19 information to its dispatchers to make sure first responders wear personal protective equipment when they enter a residence – but minus a person’s identity, according to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators contended sharing names and addresses of COVID-positive Tennesseans with law enforcement was scaring many people in African-American and Hispanic communities already mistrustful of police and keeping them from being tested for the virus.

<strong>Michael Rallings</strong>

Michael Rallings

The Black Caucus urged Lee to rescind the program more than a week ago in an official letter, saying it was “adamantly opposed” to the state’s practice of “unnecessarily violating the individual privacy rights” of state residents with law enforcement agencies.

The Associated Press reported Tennessee is one of 10 states where names and addresses of COVID-positive people are being shared with first responders.

Tennessee received guidance in March on the policy from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which claims entities covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 can share personal health information in some instances without a person’s approval. In this case, the threat of spreading COVID-19 was applied

An agreement was finalized April 3 between the Department of Health and Tennessee’s Emergency Communications Board to share the information, documents show.

Not only did the Black Caucus oppose the policy, conservative lawmakers such as state Rep. Scott Cepicky of Maury County called for the state to end the sharing of personal information.

The ACLU of Tennessee also opposed the policy, arguing first responders should wear PPE during every interaction with the public.


Brent Easley Todd Skelton Tennessee Black Caucus Gov. Bill Lee Michael Rallings
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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