Governor considers stopping COVID information sharing with police

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 13, 2020 3:53 PM CT | Published: May 12, 2020 6:45 PM CT

With personal protective equipment easier to get, Gov. Bill Lee says he might change a decision requiring the state Department of Health to share information about COVID-positive patients with law enforcement.

The governor pointed out Tuesday, May 12, the policy was intended to be temporary after he was petitioned this week to suspend the policy. The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators and several conservative lawmakers, including state Rep. Scott Cepicky of Maury County, called for the governor to end the policy, which supplied local law enforcement agencies with the names and addresses of people who test positive for the virus.

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

“In the midst of imminent danger, as was part of the unknown of COVID four, five, six weeks ago, the unknown allowed for and required for decisions to be made that we knew would be temporary,” Lee said in response to questions during his Tuesday COVID-19 briefing.

The idea is to provide the information to dispatchers so they can let officers, firefighters and ambulance personnel know when they could be entering a home where a COVID-positive person lives. First responders could then make certain they’re wearing the proper protective equipment, which was in short supply or being rationed early in the pandemic.

<strong>Gov. Bill Lee</strong>

Gov. Bill Lee

Lee noted numerous orders he’s made such as shelter-at-home, which has been lifted, regulations for health care workers and protecting first responders were all designed to be temporary.

Personal protective equipment, though, has become more widely available for first responders and “allows us to consider that temporary decision being changed and we will do so,” Lee said. He noted a decision should be made in the “coming days” and reiterated that statement to legislators during a Wednesday conference call.

Asked why he didn’t notify the public, Lee said he sent a letter to the Legislature four to five weeks ago telling lawmakers about the release of information.

Black Caucus seeks harder look at COVID-19 impact on minorities

Nevertheless, the Black Caucus and Cepicky didn’t ask Lee to stop the policy until news reports surfaced recently.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, said the policy could have a “chilling effect” on African American and Hispanic communities and their willingness to take a COVID-19 test. He noted people feel “their constitutional right to privacy is being violated without any warning.”

Cepicky requested the speakers of the House and Senate advise Lee to repeal the contact tracing and information sharing. He also pointed out 98% of those who contract the virus will suffer few, if any, symptoms and recover quickly.

The ACLU-Tennessee also called for the program to be stopped, contending first responders should be properly equipped no matter what since only a fraction of Tennesseans have undergone testes and many people who carry the virus are asymptomatic.

Asked how effective the policy could be in light of that information, Lee said the supply chain is much better now for personal protective equipment and the state is putting together a plan to make sure they have the necessary protection.

Black Caucus calls for more information on COVID impact on African Americans

“That’s the ultimate goal here, protect Tennesseans whether they be a first responder and we also want to protect the privacy of folks and so we’ll move in that direction,” Lee said.

According to reports, the Department of Health initially did not want to share the information with law enforcement but at least three district attorneys general lobbied the Governor’s Office to enact the information sharing policy. Once a law enforcement agency reaches a memorandum of understanding with the Health Department, it can receive the information each day.

The names of people who test positive will roll off the list after 30 days.

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

“We are mindful of patient privacy as well, so a process has been created to comply with HIPAA regulations while also providing needed information to first responders,” said a letter from Brandon Gibson, the governor’s former senior advisor who was appointed this week as chief operating officer.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton was made aware of the agreement when other members were notified in the April 3 letter from Gibson. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally also was notified.

“While he understands the privacy concerns, Lt. Gov. McNally is confident law enforcement is handling the information responsibly. He is convinced the agreement is necessary for the safety of Tennessee citizens and first responders during this crisis,” his spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.

Hardaway said Wednesday he did receive a letter from Gibson saying the state would be sharing information with 911 operators, but he pointed out it was not “specific” about giving out names and addresses of COVID-positive people to law enforcement agencies.

Otherwise, Hardaway said, “I would have responded instantly and said, ‘No, don’t do that.’”

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

Shelby County Health Department shares information about the addresses of COVID-positive patients, but not their names, with the sheriff’s office and Memphis Police Department.

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Bill Lee G.A. Hardaway Scott Cepicky
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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