As COVID-19 spread in Ventura County, public health officials agreed to release addresses of positive patients with firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement personnel.
But just patient addresses. No names or any other personal information is disclosed.
It doesn’t need to be, said Steve Carroll, the county’s Emergency Medical Services administrator. On emergency calls, responding personnel will don more protective equipment if there is a positive case in the home regardless of who made the call, he said.
The decision was made based on guidance from the U.S. Health and Human Services Agency. Answering questions related to the novel coronavirus and federal privacy laws, the agency deemed “the minimum necessary information” OK for release to first responders.
“It is limited to what they would need to prevent the further spread of the disease,” Carroll said.
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Over the past few months, jurisdictions have handled the release differently as states and counties grappled with reducing exposure and responded to requests from law enforcement for information. Officials in some spots have released names and addresses, according to news reports.
Proponents say the information allows paramedics, firefighters and officers to limit the risk of exposure to themselves and patients.
Some privacy rights advocates, however, worry about unintended consequences of releasing personal information such as discouraging some from getting tested.
In Ventura County, Carroll said a system was set up with safeguards to keep the information to the minimum standard.
Karen Stauffer, of Oak Park, was diagnosed with COVID-19 six weeks ago. She had not heard about her address or others being shared with first responders.
“I think people would be responsible enough to let anyone know who was coming to your home,” she said after being told about the process.
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That’s what Stauffer did, she said. She also stayed isolated at home when she first felt sick prior to any diagnosis. After being hospitalized for five days and testing positive, she again stayed quarantined at home.
“As far as having my address out there, that feels a bit weird,” said Stauffer, who has since recovered and tested negative last week. “I do understand it as long as it’s not there forever.”
Each day, a public health epidemiologist provides a list of new patients who tested positive to Carroll, who then provides it to a single point of contact identified at each dispatch center in the county.
For fire departments and ambulance companies, the list goes to just one dispatch center. The Ventura County Fire Department dispatches all fire and ambulance equipment for agencies countywide, including the Oxnard and Ventura city departments.
Early on, that was it, Carroll said. Law enforcement officials then requested the information, too, saying their personnel would need to take steps to reduce exposure. The release was authorized, Carroll said, and agencies were added to the list.
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The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center also gets a countywide list. In addition, Carroll sends the citywide addresses to a contact at Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Santa Paula and Simi Valley police departments.
The goal is to have the address only pop up when a response is needed at that spot.
While cases do not come off the list when someone recovers, all addresses expire from dispatch systems after 45 days, according to Carroll.
But even with those safeguards, the data did get outside the circle.
Looking for hotspots
At some point in the past few months, Oxnard Fire Department also got the citywide list of addresses for COVID-positive patients, which it used in a password-protected mapping tool to try to discover any hotspots.
The department had not been approved to do so or to use the information for anything other than alerting responding units of a potential case, according to Carroll.
Both fell outside the limited parameters set up in the county.
It was unclear what agency released the data to Oxnard Fire Department, but it did not come from public health, Carroll said.
“It shouldn’t have happened and it has stopped,” he said.
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The county found out when the fire department met with health officials to see how the agencies may be able to work together and potentially share more information. Until then, the fire department said it didn’t know its work would be an issue.
The goal was not to help protect its own personnel. Instead, the department wanted to use the technology to inform decisions about community outreach efforts and resources, said Assistant Chief Alex Hamilton.
“It was not information being released to the public,” he said. “It was for us to make informed policies.”
Once it had the addresses, the department also had scrubbed the data to change specific addresses to the nearest block, he said.
Hamilton initially used publicly available data in the mapping tool and later added in calls firefighters responded to for people with flu-like symptoms. He then requested and, for a little while, got the addresses of city residents positive for COVID-19.
Responders add gear
Hamilton said he understood the county’s concerns and hopes to find other ways to collaborate.
With or without the addresses, dispatch centers also screen callers asking questions about potential symptoms or exposure.
Early on in the outbreak, emergency medical crews only donned a significantly increased level of personal protective equipment, or PPE, on calls with positive cases or people with common COVID-19 symptoms.
But those steps were not catching all cases and guidelines changed to require more protective gear on all calls, Carroll said.
All responders now have to wear masks, gloves and eye protection on any call. If there are known symptoms, crews wear an N-95 mask, which provides a higher level of protection than other masks, gloves, goggles and a gown or protective clothing.
Since, the number of personnel exposed to the virus without proper PPE dropped to almost zero, Carroll said. A few unprotected exposures have happened. But, he said, those were related to equipment failure not because it was unavailable.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at [email protected] or 805-437-0260.