Louisiana says some rural parishes misusing virus data lists
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Department of Health is accusing some rural parish officials of misusing lists of patients who tested positive for the coronavirus, violating privacy laws and misinterpreting the data to claim the virus outbreak is less severe than it is.
To combat what it considers improper handling of sensitive data, the health department sent an email to all parish emergency leaders Thursday telling them if they want to keep receiving the reports, they must sign a new data sharing agreement limiting how they can use the data and requiring destruction of earlier records.
“The problem we had is when we did share it, we told them, ‘This is (federally protected) information. You’re not to share it with everyone.’ They have not always followed our guidance,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s state health office. “They have shared and put information out and put names out, and that changes the way people react to you, at your home, in your community.”
The health department sends lists of patients who tested positive for the coronavirus to local emergency officials to help first responders know when to prepare for interacting with someone infected.
But the Advocate reports that in some rural parishes, emergency officials combed through the names, noticed duplicates and shared the lists with other elected officials. Several claimed it was evidence Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is inflating the number of cases because their list didn’t match up with the official tally of cases.
“It’s funny to me that if they’re not misrepresenting then why did they all of the sudden quit sending out these reports?” said Shawn Beard, the Red River Parish police jury president.
“They want to shut us up,” he said.
The Department of Health has spent weeks rebuffing claims from local officials, particularly from Red River Parish, that the lists prove the state is inflating numbers. State officials say they scrub the data regularly to remove duplicate names so people who are tested multiple times don’t inadvertently inflate the case count.
Beard — who declared masks don’t work to stop coronavirus spread and expressed skepticism about hospitals being overrun with patients — said the lists sent to parishes include multiple instances of the same person, therefore the number of cases must be an overcount.
But health department data indicates there are far more positive tests than cases. Recent figures on testing, which run through July 22, showed Louisiana had received 151,740 total positive tests that resulted in only 107,394 cases, meaning the state removed more than 44,000 duplicates.
Nearly 3,900 Louisiana residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, the state reported Sunday.
The health department said some parish officials simply don’t understand the information they’re receiving and sharing the list of names for reasons other than helping first responders is improper.
Beard disputed that his obtaining secondhand information from the list is a violation of patient privacy laws because the police jury oversees the local Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which gets the list of names from the health department.
According to guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sharing such data with local first responders does not violate medical privacy laws. However, the data should only be shared to the “minimum necessary” extent to accomplish the purpose.
Beard is not the only local official to use the lists to try to undermine health department data.
LaSalle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin, speaking to conservative talk radio show host Moon Griffon, said “it burns me up” when he sees media outlets reporting new cases, because he believes the data includes duplicates. He said he won’t sign the new data sharing agreement, which he dubbed a “gag order.”
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