Law enforcement access to COVID-19 patient information sparks controversy in Mid-South

MPD, SCSO have COVID-19 patient information

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Growing outrage that federal HIPAA laws aren’t protecting Tennesseans’ privacy during the coronavirus outbreak. If you test positive for COVID-19, there’s a good chance your local police or sheriff’s department knows about it.

Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings confirmed Monday that MPD has access to information about those who have the virus or are in quarantine because of exposure to the virus. The Memphis Fire Department and Shelby County Sheriff's Office have access to the same data.

“The information we receive is protected,” Rallings said during Monday’s Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force briefing. “It is used to protect the first responders and the community because God forbid if our first responders became exposed. That could increase exposure to our community at large.”

Memphis/Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force meeting -- May 11

"We are trying to limit our usage of PPE,” said MFD Director Gina Sweat, “as much as possible to make our supply chain last."

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and the state health department made the decision to make this private medical information public, releasing it to 68 police and sheriff’s departments.

The Tennessee Black Caucus called for an end to the practice, warning it will have a “chilling effect,” which may stop people from getting tested.

List of COVID-19 patients shared with law enforcement agencies

"People feel their constitutional right to privacy is being violated without warning," said Chairman G.A. Hardaway of Memphis. "There are better ways to protect our first responders, while at the same time giving proper notification to the citizens involved."

WMC Action News 5 political analyst Michael Nelson says this unprecedented crisis requires a delicate balancing act.

“I think it should always bother every American when people talk about some further intrusion by the government into our privacy," said Nelson. "But it should bother us in the sense that we ask ‘OK, what’s the trade-off here? Is it worth giving up a little bit of privacy in the short term for public health and the rights of others?'”

The Shelby County Health Department provides Shelby County’s 911 center with this private information. It’s then dispatched to local first responders when they go out on calls. Rallings says they only get addresses, not names of those with COVID-19.

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