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

By , Daily Memphian Published: May 21, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators is formally requesting Gov. Bill Lee rescind a program allowing personal information of COVID-positive people to be shared with law enforcement.

Governor considers stopping COVID information sharing with police

If not, the group is advising Tennesseans to give other information but not their street address when tested if they’re concerned about privacy.

In a May 18, 2020, letter to the governor, the Black Caucus said it remains “adamantly opposed” to the Tennessee Health Department’s practice of “unnecessarily violating the individual privacy rights” of state residents by sharing personal health information with law enforcement agencies, which would normally be protected by federal health privacy laws.

“Among those patriots who harbor mistrust of law enforcements’ unconstitutional access to private health information are the currently underserved populations, who are most at risk for negative health outcomes,” the letter states.

Tennessee is one of 10 states where names and addresses of COVID-positive people are being shared with first responders, according to an Associated Press report.

 The Black Caucus contends many Tennesseans are “reluctant” to have a COVID-19 test because they’re afraid state and county health departments will share the names and addresses of those who are positive with other agencies. Immigration advocates also say the Hispanic community is leery of testing for fear the data will be given to immigration agencies. 

The Black Caucus urges Lee to rescind memorandums of understanding between the state Health Department and law enforcement agencies in an effort to encourage “full participation” by all Tennesseans in COVID-19 testing.

“Without adequate and statistically sound data, safely reopening our businesses and the economy, restructuring our schools and educational system, restoring our justice system, etc., remain elusive goals at best,” the letter says.

The governor said recently he would consider changing the policy but noted it was necessary five to six weeks ago because of the “imminent danger” brought on by COVID-19 and the need to protect first responders being dispatched to homes.

No change in the policy has been announced, and the Governor’s Office did not respond to questions about the matter Tuesday.

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 911 board or 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.

 Tennessee received guidance 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 is being applied. 

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

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

G.A. Hardaway

Until the governor ends his order allowing the Department of Health to enter a memorandum of understanding with law enforcement agencies, the Black Caucus “suggests” those who take COVID-19 tests to provide only their city, state and ZIP code as well as cell phone numbers and email addresses but not their street address.

The caucus is not opposed to 911 boards supplying the information to its operators, but it does not believe a list of names and addresses of COVID-positive people should be given out to law enforcement agencies, according to state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus.

“We support the police. We do not support a police state,” Hardaway said.

Rallings defends police use of addresses of those with COVID-19 virus

Memphis Police Chief Michael Rallings recently said a memorandum of understanding between the state and Shelby County 911 board has 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.

<strong>Jesse Chism</strong>

Jesse Chism

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. He agrees with the rationale for protecting first responders.

State Rep. Jesse Chism is concerned, though, that information could be “abused” if given out directly to law enforcement.

“It is a very scary ordeal to hear about the shared database,” the Memphis Democrat said.

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

The Black Caucus initiated talks with the Governor’s Office about the matter more than a week ago. So did state Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Maury County Republican who sent a letter questioning the constitutionality of the program.

<strong>Scott Cepicky</strong>

Scott Cepicky

Cepicky said Tuesday he has gotten no response from the governor’s office. Hardaway said he was told the governor is working on the matter, but he wants Lee to take action immediately and rescind the policy in an effort to control the disease by encouraging everyone to be tested more frequently.

Hardaway contends the U.S. Department of Health of Human Services did not mandate the information-sharing but that the state took on the initiative in an effort to “serve some higher purpose from the federal government.”

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Tennessee Black Caucus G.A. Hardaway Jesse Chism 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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