JANESVILLE — The sharing of information related to COVID-19 cases and deaths in Rock County remains a contentious issue between county staff and local municipalities.
The Rock County Health Department is withholding the age and gender of county residents who have died from COVID-19 complications, citing a potential privacy violation due to the small number of deaths (nine) that have been reported in the county.
The Beloit Daily News previously requested gender information and an age range of COVID-19 victims.
“Even gender and age range, could be used to identify a patient with so few deaths in the county currently,” said Rock County Administrator Josh Smith. “So like the Health Department not releasing similar information when we had so few cases in the county, they would not release information because this subset is small and patients could be identified.”
Last month, the Janesville City Council sparred with the health department regarding the release of more detailed information surrounding the county’s COVID-19 cases.
At the time, Smith said that Rock County Public Health Officer Mari-Noel Sandoval determined that sharing further data would “not help address any such imminent threat, and that client privacy outweighs the need to release information.”
Since then, the county has released additional COVID-19 information for first responders by providing addresses of people with confirmed cases to the county’s computer-aided police and fire dispatch system, with a notification being given to first responders if they are sent to a home of a known COVID-19 patient.
Additional public data is updated daily online at the county website at co.rock.wi.us, while data surrounding COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations by health systems was being withheld as of Monday.
On Tuesday, the health department announced that 15 people were hospitalized at Rock County area hospitals due to COVID-19, noting that hospitalizations would now be included in the daily update. On Wednesday, 17 hospitalizations were reported at Rock County area hospitals.
But the updated information still might not be enough for municipalities in Rock County.
Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said she “would like to see more improvement in information sharing between the health department and municipalities.”
Luther said the health department still was not sharing a list of employers with increased COVID-19 cases.
“We’re finding out information from employees that work part-time and some of these places,” Luther said. “That’s how we are learning about some of these things.”
The flashpoint over release of detailed COVID-19 information isn’t limited to Rock County.
Health officials from across the nation are applying varying interpretations of how the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, should guide public information sharing during the pandemic.
HIPAA addresses patient privacy and prevents medical information from being made public.
In response to the patchwork of varying interpretations, the Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press drafted recommendations for journalists, legislators and courts to ensure the press and public’s right of access to government information is preserved.
Additional reporting provided by the Adams Publishing Group.