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From the archives 2020

Pennsylvania’s health department is keeping coronavirus details from local officials

by Cynthia Fernandez and Justine McDaniel |

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Wednesday counties with local departments “have complete control” about what information they release.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — For the first time since the coronavirus hit Pennsylvania, state officials have released data on how many people have been tested, but refused to give out more information about where infected persons are located, despite calls from some county officials and lawmakers for them to provide specifics.

Because the state runs investigations into the virus in counties without health departments, officials say the information they collect falls under a 1955 law that gives the department broad discretion to keep the information about contagious diseases secret.

But in Montgomery County, for instance, where the majority of the region’s cases are concentrated and are being investigated by the county health department, officials have taken a different approach, releasing and even mapping the municipalities where infected people live. Bucks County and Philadelphia, which also operate their own health departments and could hand out more details, have chosen not to.

Bucks County Health Department Director David Damsker said Wednesday that there was no public health reason to release the locations of the county’s two coronavirus patients.

“The state prefers that we don’t, but we’re doing it for our own reasons,” Damsker said, adding that the county would release more details if there were a reason to do so.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Wednesday counties with local departments “have complete control” about what information they release.

“They have a decision to make whether giving out specific information supports the public’s health,” Levine said. “If that health official feels it is necessary for the public health, then they can release it."

But there are only 10 counties and municipalities with local health departments. That has left officials in areas that lack a local department — and the public — in the dark about specifics.

Delaware County lawmakers and officials say they have pressed the state department for the exact municipality where the county’s infected person lives, and lawmakers were on multiple phone calls with the state over the weekend.

“We tried to push them as much as possible,” Monica Taylor, vice chair of the Delaware County Council, said on Monday. “They are not budging at all.”

State officials told the county council that the 1955 public health law “prohibits the state from releasing identifying information about a patient unless there is an imminent threat,” said Adrienne Marofsky, a spokesperson for Delaware County.

Delaware County state Sens. Tom Killion, a Republican, and Tim Kearney, a Democrat, urged the state to release information that would help the county’s emergency response without putting the patient’s privacy at risk.

“[T]his information is being withheld from our professional and effective county emergency services personnel,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “This information serves the interest of public safety and transparency without substantially infringing on this individual’s right to privacy.”

Though anyone who had direct contact with the infected person has been notified by officials, a spokesperson for Kearney said residents want more information.

“We don’t know whether it’s one end of the county or the other end,” Kearney spokesperson Taj Magruder said. “Without a county health department, the state essentially owns the information. Otherwise this would be information that would be shared with a county health department that could be shared with the general public.”

Nate Wardle, a health department spokesperson, said the state is “providing those counties with the information that they need to know.”

“Residents of those counties can be assured that contact tracing” — the public health term used for interviewing people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus — “is occurring, and anyone who may have come into contact with one of these individuals would have been contacted,” Wardle said.

Officials in Wayne County, which does not have a local health department, said they don’t have details about the county’s one coronavirus case either, but trust the state to do its job.

“We did ask them for specifics — if they could tell us even a region of the county, if they had children in a school district,” said Andrew Seder, chief clerk for the county commissioners.

But commissioners said they were happy with the state’s response.

“We understand confidentiality issues across the board, so we just don’t push back, but we did feel as though the state was fairly good about getting a hold of us,” Wayne Commissioner Brian Smith said Monday.

In Philadelphia, county health officials have not made public the neighborhood where the city’s one infected person lives. They say they are working with the state on COVID-19 efforts on a daily basis.

“We manage and track Philadelphia residents and are in direct contact with them as needed, so we have no issues there,” said James Garrow, the communications director for the city’s public health department.

On Wednesday, the state health department released for the first time the number and results of samples tested, as well as the number of people under investigation after coming into contact with an infected person.

As of Thursday afternoon, 22 people had tested positive and 116 had tested negative. There were 81 samples pending and 219 people under investigation.

The department “wanted to ensure that the right to privacy of Pennsylvanians was protected,” health spokesperson Wardle said, but since more than 100 samples had been tested, “we felt we could get the information out.”

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