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Privacy rights and protection/safety needs clash over COVID-19

The privacy of individuals and the protection of first responders are two elements in a back-and-forth that raises the question of whether the two are mutually exclusive.

State. Rep. G.A. Hardaway

“Both privacy of individuals and protection of first responders are very important, but they are not mutually exclusive,” said State Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-93), chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators (TBCSL). “We can do both.”

Criticism on the firestorm level surfaced Monday with a COVID-19 Joint Task Force briefing during which when Memphis Police Department Director Mike Rallings acknowledged that first responders to emergency calls have had the addresses of COVID-19 patients for weeks.

On April 6, the Tennessee Department of Health gave – via a memoranda of understanding (MOU) – the OK to share such information with law enforcement. At Monday’s COVID-19 Task Force briefing Rallings said the information is necessary.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings

“If first responders become exposed, that could increase exposure to our community at large,” Rallings said, noting that 31 police employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and that 269 out on quarantine are now back at work.

Hardaway said state legislators learned on April 3 via a “somewhat cryptic” email from the state health department that data listing those who tested positive for the coronavirus would be made available to law enforcement.

“In a public health crisis, you don’t suspend the U.S. Constitution, you suspend laws and rules,” said Hardaway. “This is profiling, information released without the consent of the individuals involved.”

The “intrusion” was unwarranted and not the right solution for protecting first responders,” Hardaway said.

“Black legislators care about first responders. …Some of our folk are police and EMTs and firefighters. So don’t think we don’t want to keep them safe.”

Black Caucus members have presented three alterations to the COVID-19 disclosure format to Shelby County Health Department officials, the Tennessee Department of Minority Health and Disparity Elimination, the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Office of Minority Affairs:

  • On a need-to-know basis;
  • Have 9-1-1 operators ask if anyone in the household has COVID-19 at the time an emergency call is made;
  • Implement a rigorous testing regimen for first responders and purchase all of the personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe.

“I am encouraged with our conversations,” Hardaway said.

At Monday’s COVID-19 Task Force briefing, Memphis Fire Department Director Gina Sweat called the COVID-19 information about those who have tested positive information “critical for protecting first responders working with a finite supply of personal protective equipment.”

Later during a telephone interview, Capt. Anthony Buckner of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department said the only information given is the address of the COVID-19 case.

“…This provides our first responders with advance notice to use extra precautions should they have to interact with someone at that address.”

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