Two U.S. states — Alabama and Massachusetts — have begun providing the addresses of those known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to police in a bid to contain the spread and protect first responders who might answer a call where a coronavirus sufferer is involved.
Alabama began providing the addresses — but not names — to police and other emergency responders starting more than a week ago. The information is being distributed to 85 emergency communications districts in the state, and is then relayed to police officers and other first responders when they go out on calls.
“It’s only on an as-known, as-needed basis,” said Leah Missildine, executive director of Alabama’s 911 Board. “The impetus behind this is to protect first responders because 9-1-1 receives the information and coordinates the response of first responders. That was deemed the most efficient way to share this information.”
Massachusetts’ order went into effect March 18. It allows the health board to share the addresses — again, not names — of people who tested positive for COVID-19 with emergency responders. The order cites a need for “continued operation of public health and safety services during the state of emergency.”
The Massachusetts order specifies the information “may not be retained” at the end of the executive order, and that it should only be used for responding to emergency calls. The receiving entity of information must keep it “confidential.”
Arrol Sheehan, director of public information at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said her state’s authority to share the information is enshrined in Alabama state law.
“The Alabama Department of Public Health was requested to provide addresses of patients home quarantined for COVID 19 to the Alabama 9-1-1 Board for the protection of first responders,” she said in a statement, adding that the department of health has also issued guidance on how the information should be used.
Alabama may also release the information to other third parties, such as doctors or anyone deemed at risk should they become exposed. Sheehan quoted the part of Alabama law that authorizes such disclosures: “Physicians or the State Health Officer or his designee may notify a third party of the presence of a contagious disease in an individual where there is a foreseeable, real or probable risk of transmission of the disease.”
Sheehan said the decision was made mutually between the health department and the members of the 9-1-1 Board “to share this information to protect our first responders.” Alabama’s 9-1-1 Board is made up of around a dozen people, some of whom are selected by the governor and others from cable and wireless communications organizations, and coordinates emergency services throughout Alabama’s counties.
The 9-1-1 Board receives an address list daily from the Alabama Department of Public Health which is then provided to a designated response director in the 85 emergency communications districts in the state, depending on whether or not the district has active coronavirus cases.
Alabama currently has 807 confirmed cases of coronavirus and four confirmed deaths from the disease. Massachusetts has 5,752 current cases and 56 deaths.
Missildine says the list she receives and disseminates is being protected by a potential hacking “through secure email servers.” When asked if she had privacy concerns about the list or that information may be leaked, she declined to comment, saying she was not an expert on that.
Public health and privacy advocates say the disclosures violate patient privacy while providing no benefit to public health or the safety of first responders.
Robert Greenwald, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, wrote a letter to Massachusetts Governor Baker calling that state’s order “misguided.” “Requiring local boards of health to disclose the addresses of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to officials administering the response to emergency calls and, in turn, to first responders, is not sound public health policy," he wrote.
Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of the advocacy group Patient Privacy Rights, said the policy is outdated, violates privacy, and actually puts first responders in danger because an unknown number of coronavirus carriers are asymptomatic.
“It’s based on an early and mistaken idea that the disease was only spread by people who were obviously symptomatic,” she said. “We now know that that’s wrong, so it makes no sense. Everybody should act in a careful, social distancing way to interact with anybody’s door they have to knock on.”
Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Alabama, said he believes that Alabama should evaluate whether the policy is effective before implementing things that might be “pushing up on individual’s Constitutional rights.”
Cover: A Boston police car sits outside the Long Wharf Marriott hotel in Boston on March 12, 2020. Seventy of Massachusetts' first 92 confirmed coronavirus cases have been linked to a meeting of Biogen executives that was held at the hotel in late February. (Photo: Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)