If you’ve tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the Denver metro area, your home address might be handed over to an emergency dispatch center and flagged for law enforcement as an infection site.
The addresses of COVID-19 patients in Denver, Boulder, El Paso, Adams, Douglas, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties have been given to 911 centers so the dispatchers can warn police officers and first responders who are called to the addresses that there are confirmed novel coronavirus cases within.
Proponents of the practice say it gives first responders an important heads up to be particularly careful and to don enhanced protective gear when responding to addresses with confirmed cases, while critics say it’s an unnecessary disclosure that’s ripe for abuse.
“This looks to me like a pointless invasion of privacy,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “The disclosures can’t possibly serve the intended purpose of protecting first responders from transmission of the virus.”
The coronavirus has spread much farther in the community than testing has confirmed, he said, and officers should take precautions at all times to protect themselves, not just when they’re called to an address with confirmed cases.
“A list of who has tested positive is such incomplete information about who is possibly contagious, I can’t see how it does any good,” he said.
But for the Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, the practice began as a way to conserve personal protective equipment among widespread shortages, said Michele Askenazi, director of emergency preparedness, response and communicable disease surveillance.
The health department sent a list of addresses, which did not include any names, to dispatch centers daily in encrypted emails that included a warning about keeping the information confidential, she said.
Arapahoe County opted to stop receiving the lists in April, as it became clear that the virus was being spread widely in the community, she said. Douglas and Adams counties still receive daily updates.
In Denver, the city’s public health department has sent more than 1,000 addresses to dispatchers denoting COVID-19 patients’ homes. The list, updated daily, also includes addresses where patients have recovered enough to be allowed out of isolation, according to a statement from the city’s joint information center.
It was not clear Wednesday how or when the addresses of such former Denver patients would be removed from the database, although other jurisdictions had clear policies: in Boulder County, every address comes with a preset “purge date” and is automatically removed from the system after that date; El Paso County keeps flagged addresses for 45 days and Jefferson County for 30 days.
Denver, which handles only a small portion of COVID-19 testing, does not tell patients that their addresses will be provided to police, according to the statement.
That’s problematic, said Silverstein.
“When people go in for a medical test or procedure, I think they assume that’s private, confidential information, and if it’s going to be disclosed, it needs to be for a pretty good reason and there need to be guardrails and safeguards around the disclosure,” Silverstein said.
Law enforcement agencies and health officials on Wednesday pointed to some such precautions. Dispatch centers never receive patients’ names, officials said, and only will be warned about a patients’ address if they’re called to the site for another reason.
“It’s not something people can just go in and say, ‘Tell me all the addresses,’” said Vicki Pickett, operations manager at Jeffcom 911, which receives an updated list of addresses five days a week from Jefferson County Public Health.
The warning system is similar to other ways authorities can flag addresses, she said. If a resident has a history of making threats toward law enforcement, or if in the past officers responded to a gun-related call at an address, that information can be — and often is — attached to that address as a caution for officers on future calls. Sometimes cautions will be put on addresses if a resident has dementia and frequently calls police, she said.
Flagging the homes of COVID-19 patients is another way to be sure officers are prepared for what they encounter, said Jacqueline Kirby, spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s just an extra layer of information that the deputy is armed with,” she said. “To protect themselves and the individuals they are going to the calls for service for. It is confidential information that is not shared outside the agency.”
Law enforcement officers routinely handle private and sensitive information, she said, and are well-versed in the regulations and laws protecting such information. The sheriff’s office faces a variety of penalties for divulging or misusing such information, Kirby said.
Information sharing between local public health agencies and law enforcement on COVID-19 patients is appropriate, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which recommends agencies only disclose the “minimum necessary” information to achieve the desired purpose of protecting first responders from infection.
Federal privacy laws also give leeway to health agencies to disclose otherwise protected health information to first responders if the first responders are at risk of infection or the disclosure is necessary to “prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat” to the health and safety of a person or the public, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The data shouldn’t be used for any purpose aside from allowing first responders to better protect themselves, the CDPHE said in a statement Wednesday.
“This information was only intended to be shared on an as-needed basis for the safety of first responders as they responded to calls,” the statement said. “It would be inappropriate for law enforcement agencies to access and use the data to target individuals for enforcement.”
Still, some abuses have been reported. In New Hampshire, first responders in March passed along information on positive cases to local leaders — a practice which has been stopped, according to The Associated Press, which found in an investigation published Tuesday that at least two-thirds of states share addresses of COVID-19 patients with first responders.
The Associated Press named Colorado as one of 10 states that share not only patients’ addresses but also their names with dispatch centers. All of the counties contacted by The Denver Post Wednesday said patients’ names are not disclosed. Broomfield and Weld counties did not answer inquiries about whether COVID-19 disclosures are made to dispatch centers; a spokeswoman for Broomfield said the county follows federal guidance.
More than 11 million people nationwide have been tested for the novel coronavirus, and more than 130,000 people have been tested in Colorado, which on Wednesday had 22,482 confirmed cases.