A Yuma County judge last week ordered that county’s director of public health to provide the Yuma Police and Fire departments the names and addresses of all people in the county who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those with pending test results.
The April 3 order said that the Yuma County Public Health Services District had to comply within 24 hours. Attempts to contact the agency were unsuccessful.
During a press conference with Gov. Doug Ducey Tuesday afternoon, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said state public health officials were “reviewing (the court order) to see if it has potential for the rest of the state.”
Judge David Haws wrote in the order that those who test negative will be deleted from the database on a weekly basis. The information is required to remain confidential and only available to emergency dispatchers and first responder supervisors.
“It is further ordered that no names will be conveyed or broadcast over radio transmissions,” Haws wrote. The order stays in place until Ducey rescinds his COVID-19 emergency declaration.
The order stems from a lawsuit the City of Yuma filed against the county health agency on behalf of Fire Chief Steve Irr and Police Chief Susan Smith. The lawsuit alleged that first responders were in immediate danger and said they had “repeatedly requested” the information but had been denied.
Information about confirmed COVID-19 cases was necessary for first responders to remain safe in emergency situations, the city argued.
The city said it was “triaging” personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements for police, firemen and emergency medical service employees, but “cannot implement such updated requirements if it does not have the information on which persons have confirmed cases of COVID-19.”
The lawsuit posited that HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Privacy Rule, is more flexible in this case due to a new ruling and updated policies.
However, the lawsuit cites guidance from the federal government that gives an example for the exact scenario that Yuma was looking into – and says the health department shouldn’t turn the information over.
“Under this example, a covered entity should not post the contents of such a list publicly, such as on a website or through distribution to the media. A covered entity under this example also should not distribute compiled lists of individuals to EMS personnel, and instead should disclose only an individual’s information on a per-call basis,” the guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests.
Additionally, the lawsuit also cites recent revisions to the Ryan White CARE Act, a 1990 law that was originally intended to help those with HIV and AIDS that also mandates that EMS personnel can find out if they have been exposed to certain diseases while treating patients. Recently, COVID-19 was added to the list.
However, the City of Yuma is seeking that knowledge before its first responders are exposed.
Yuma Police and Fire plan to keep the database secret for dispatch only. When responding to a residence or to interface with a confirmed case, dispatchers would tell first responders to “Use full PPE.” They’d also use “full PPE” for cases that are pending and quarantined for suspected exposure.
For calls where there are symptoms only but no positive test results the call will be dispatched as “consider PPE precautions.”
“Neither patients or contacts will be identified as potentially having Coronavirus on the radio or in the call for service,” the lawsuit says.
The city also noted that there are not enough beds at the Yuma Regional Medical Center to respond to the pandemic, particularly if first responders fall ill in the line of duty.
YRMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bharat Magu told the city that the hospital is approaching a “crisis situation” with COVID-19 cases and will not have the bed capacity for the expected surge in cases, the city argued.