Oklahoma Department of Health releases inconsistent
If you listen to the various releases from the Oklahoma Department of Health pertaining T to confirmed COVID-19 cases, the amount of information they release varies widely--in fact, it appears the department is making policy as it goes, on a case-bycase basis. I
For the state’s earliest cases, the department provided key information about cities of origin, age and gender.
As more and more cases developed, the health department’s information policy devolved and they began limiting information we would deem vital to everyone’s personal safety.
With the first Payne County case, the Oklahoma Department of Health overtly refused to release information about what city the patient was from, despite repeated requests from the Cushing Citizen and other newspapers in the area.
We informed the department that we weren’t looking for the individual’s name, address and phone number. All we wanted to know was what city in Payne County harbored a case of COVID-19.
We were informed that because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) it was the policy of the department not to release an individual’s identity, or their city of origin, in order to protect their privacy.
Nowhere in HIPAA language can we find where the identity of an entire city o town is protected -- just individuals.
The specifics of HIPAA protects the privacy of individuals by preventing the release of their name, social security numbers and any other identifying data to the public. It does not prevent the Oklahoma Department of Health from listing the city of origin of a newlyconfirmed case of a contagious and apparently dangerous virus.
We do not believe that HIPAA laws are so far reaching as to allow the Department of Health to randomly pick and choose which cities are allowed to know that the coronavirus has arrived and which cities are to be left in the dark when COVID-19 comes knocking.
The department’s sanitized response to news organizations and municipal entities about this policy (which they randomly choose to observe) is, “the Oklahoma State Department of Health refrains from releasing the town/city of residence. This is especially the case in rural areas where individuals may be easily identified.”
We find it absurd that the department of health has chosen to withhold potentially life-saving information vital to the taxpaying residents of rural municipalities because of their misguided interpretation of HIPAA laws.
HIPPA law does not prevent the Oklahoma Department of Health from divulging what city a COVID-19 patient is in. Nor does it justify their withholding that information.
So why then, do policymakers at the department of health believe they have the authority to withhold vital information during this global crisis? One wonders if we can trust the department of health to conduct a thorough investigation about who a potential patient may have come into contact with, while observing their random interpretation of HIPAA laws, for fear of divulging the identity of a patient.
Do department policymakers believe that rural residents are not intellectually equipped to handle the news and may hunt down potential patients with torches and pitchforks? By not releasing the city of origin of COVID-19 cases two things happen. We are left to speculate and, in this age of raging social media misinformation, rumors become perceived fact and panic sets in. The result then is institutions like colleges and hospitals as well as whole municipalities denying that the case is within their jurisdiction, which identifies the city by elimination.
So, at a time when we need to be able to trust what is one of the most important agencies during this crisis, we are told by that very agency that we can’t be trusted with information they are legally bound by the freedom of information act to provide.
If the coronavirus is as serious as they say it is, then we believe that the Oklahoma Department of Health must be forthcoming with information that pinpoints where this virus is spreading in order to save lives in an entire community, which is their job priority over and above misinterpreting HIPPA law to protect the identity of an individual they aren’t even identifying.
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