Louisiana parishes to keep getting positive virus test lists
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Sixty percent of Louisiana’s parishes will continue to receive information about residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus, under data-sharing agreements they signed with the state — even as questions arise about whether local officials should continue to receive the personal health details.
Louisiana’s health department sends lists of people with positive tests and their addresses to local emergency officials to help first responders know they’ll be interacting with someone infected with the virus. The agency required parish officials to sign data-use agreements outlining limits on disclosure of the information after two rural parishes appeared to misuse lists they received, raising concerns they may have violated privacy laws.
Parish sheriffs and emergency preparedness officials had until Friday to sign the agreements. The health department said 39 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes filed the paperwork from both officials and will keep getting the lists.
But even as the state continues sharing the information, the health department said it has concerns about the risks of the protected health data being used inappropriately.
“We are not in the same situation we were in at the start of the pandemic,” said Aly Neel, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health.
The state began sharing positive test result lists in the early days of Louisiana’s coronavirus outbreak, when first responders had shortages of personal protective equipment and were rationing masks, gloves and other gear.
The health department said giving local officials lists of people who tested positive for the virus helped law enforcement and emergency workers know when they should use that limited protective equipment because they’d be encountering someone who had the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.
Those shortages are largely gone — and COVID-19 has spread across Louisiana in larger numbers, so the lists don’t truly show the footprint of the virus outbreak. Public health officials say first responders should act as though anyone they encounter could be carrying the virus, because so many people are asymptomatic and may never get tested.
The lists “could actually lead you to a false sense of security because you may not understand fully how much spread there is,” Neel said. “We now have COVID everywhere. You should behave like every person you interact with has COVID.”
Neel acknowledged the health department has “concerns with the data being protected.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office didn’t respond to questions about why the parishes will keep receiving the information when the initial reason for sharing the lists appears to have disappeared.
Some state lawmakers said Red River and DeSoto parishes appeared to violate federal health privacy laws with the lists of positive coronavirus tests that they received.
Officials with Red River Parish’s homeland security office and with the DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office posted claims on Facebook in July that the health department was inflating the numbers of residents in their parishes who tested positive for COVID-19.
But Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office found the claims the state was double-counting their positive coronavirus tests in the official tally of cases was unfounded. Auditors told a legislative council that oversees the auditor’s work that the parish officials misunderstood the information they received.
Republican Rep. Barry Ivey, chairman of the council, said the two rural parishes’ leaders seemed to breach laws protecting people’s personal health information and “effectively undermined public safety” by spreading misinformation about the virus outbreak.
DeSoto officials signed the data-sharing document to continue receiving the information, but Red River Parish will no longer get the positive test results list because its emergency preparedness office didn’t return a data-use agreement to the state.
Other parishes that will no longer get the information include some of the state’s most populous. Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Rapides and St. Tammany parishes are among the 25 that didn’t return the agreement, according to the Department of Health.
It’s unclear whether the state will let parishes return the paperwork later and resume receiving the data.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.