Nashville’s public health department will continue to provide COVID-19 patient information to first responders, even though the state has decided to halt its own data-sharing policy by the end of the month.
Metro Public Health Director Michael Caldwell says the practice is “temporary,” but that it’s working.
“This is an emergency,” he says. “This is critical, timely, life-saving information that has reduced and contained the spread of this disease within our medical institutions and within our jails. I’m puzzled by why the state reversed course.”
The Tennessee Department of Health has been sharing the names and addresses of residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus with 70 local sheriff’s offices and police departments.
The policy has received widespread criticism, including from privacy advocates, immigrants’ rights groups and the state legislature’s black caucus. They worry sharing test results with law enforcement could dissuade people from getting tested, or from calling for help when they need it.
The governor’s office has said that the goal was to alert law enforcement or emergency medical personnel before they responded to a home with COVID-19 cases, in order to preserve personal protective gear for cases that presented a heightened risk of exposure.
However, in an email sent to participating law enforcement enforcement earlier this week, the Unified Command Group’s legal counsel said the program was no longer needed, since PPE had become more readily available. Instead, he said, first responders should treat each person they encounter as a potential COVID-19 patient and suit up accordingly.
Nashville never signed onto to the state’s program. Instead, first responders have been receiving patient’s addresses directly from the local health department, and Caldwell says access to that data is limited.
“That information is not available to anyone, unless the officer or ambulance runs a particular name of an individual and then that information comes up,” he says.
Caldwell says the data expires within a month, or when a patient recovers from the virus.
Nashville Fire Department Chief William Swann says ensuring both first responders and community members feel comfortable requires balance.
“At the end of the day, it’s about stopping the virus, the COVID-19. And we’re obligated to be one partner,” he says. “As first responders, we do everything that we can to make sure that we protect the citizens, visitors and friends that come to Davidson County. But we also got to look out for our men and women, as well.”