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Releasing COVID-19 info to first responders is necessary

During a public health crisis, the more facts available the better — not just to the general public, but even more so for those on the front lines in dealing with a pandemic.

Washington County’s Health Department Board did the right thing this week in voting to release the names and addresses of those with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to the county emergency management program for entry into the 911 dispatch database. Names and addresses of those being monitored or under quarantine because of contact with confirmed or suspected cases will be released to those entities as well.

To be clear, that is where the release of those two pieces of information MUST end. It must be available to the first responders who need it and to no one else. Supervisors must ensure any employee who might come in contact with that information understands they will be fired immediately if they leak it.

On the other hand, local hospitals, health departments and officials in charge of the release of information to the public during this time must stop pretending it is a matter of patient privacy to release details such as the gender, age range, whether there were underlying medical conditions and how a person may have gotten the virus when new cases — or clusters of cases — are announced.

Such information helps the public make decisions that will keep them safe without identifying individual patients. And again, no one is asking for the broad release of the names or locations of individual patients. That would, indeed, be a violation of privacy laws.

But expanding the umbrella to include first responders in the list of those for whom names and locations are essential information is necessary and the right thing to do; as is making sure members of the public have as much non-identifying information as possible.

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