CORONAVIRUS

Iowa among states sharing COVID-19 data with police

Critics worry it will be shared with immigration, too

Health care workers wait April 16 for appointments to take a samples from people for COVID-19 testing at the Louisa Coun
Health care workers wait April 16 for appointments to take a samples from people for COVID-19 testing at the Louisa County Clinic in Columbus City. Two employees have died after a coronavirus outbreak at the Tyson Foods pork plant in nearby Columbus Junction. Minorities and immigrants make up a large share of the workforce at Iowa’s meat packing plants. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Public health officials in at least two-thirds of the states including Iowa are sharing the addresses of people who have the coronavirus with first responders in an effort to protect those on the front lines — but sparking concerns of racial and ethnic profiling and revealing personal information.

An Associated Press review of those states found that at least 10 — also including Iowa — in some instances share the names of everyone who has tested positive.

Sharing the information does not violate medical privacy laws, according to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Law enforcement officials say the information helps them take precautions when responding to a call to avoid contracting and spreading the virus.

But civil liberty and community activists have expressed concerns of potential profiling in African-American and Hispanic communities that already have an uneasy relationship with law enforcement. Some envision the data being forwarded to immigration officials.

Critics wonder why first responders don’t just take extra precautions with everyone, given that so many people with the virus are asymptomatic or present only mild symptoms.

In Iowa, hundreds of workers at meatpacking plants have been tested for the coronavirus after outbreaks idled plants in Perry, Waterloo and Columbus Junction. Many workers who tested positive for COVID-19 are minorities and immigrants.

Latinos make up just 6 percent of Iowa’s population, for instance, but constitute 25 percent of all Iowans who have tested positive.

The AP review shows that public health officials in at least 35 states share the addresses of those who have tested positive with first responders who request it. In at least 10 of those states, health agencies may also share their names: Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee. Wisconsin did so briefly but stopped earlier this month.

Agencies in the Corridor say the addresses are shared under strict controls to databases. So if first responders are called to an address that is flagged, the crew knows in advance what precautions are needed.

Agencies surveyed by The Gazette said the information they receive does not include names.

Sam Jarvis, community health manager for Johnson County Public Health, said the department shares addresses — but not names — with the county’s Joint Emergency Communication Center. One person enters the information into the dispatch system so if a 911 comes in for that address, responders know in advance what level of personal protective gear is needed.

“We have the process set up (so) that as persons recover, those addresses are removed,” Jarvis said in an email.

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said law enforcement agencies should assure minority communities that the information won’t be turned over to the federal government.

He noted the Trump administration’s demands that local governments cooperate with immigration authorities as a concern.

Law enforcement officials note they have long been entrusted with confidential information, including Social Security numbers and criminal history. The COVID-19 information, they say, is just a continuation of that trend.

According to the national Fraternal Order of Police, more than 100 police officers in the United States have died from the coronavirus.

Lee Hermiston and Kat Russell of The Gazette contributed.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.