Some Colo. counties sharing COVID-19 infection information with LE, others reevaluating practice

Some agencies are evaluating sharing the addresses of those with COVID-19 on a monthly basis, citing privacy concerns and the necessity of warning LEOs prior to responding to calls

Jesse Paul
Colorado Sun

DENVER — Several local public health agencies in Colorado are sharing information with emergency dispatchers about households where people have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The agencies say the practice provides a warning to first responders to take extra precautions when dispatched to those homes, but privacy advocates are raising concerns.

Authorities in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas and El Paso counties confirmed to The Colorado Sun that they follow the practice. Sharing the information is legal under state and federal law.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said that early in the crisis it asked for guidance from the attorney general’s office on sharing infection information with first responders. But Ian Dickson, a spokesman for the department, says the information sharing is now “irrelevant due to a large number of positive cases” and because the virus is being spread through community transmission.

Dickson said the state never shared information with first responders and that the practice was only done at the local level. “This information was only intended to be shared on an as-needed basis for the safety of first responders as they responded to calls,” he said. “It would be inappropriate for law enforcement agencies to access and use the data to target individuals for enforcement.”

But despite the state saying the information sharing is no longer necessary, The Sun found a number of agencies still follow the practice. 

Kirby said public health officials don’t give the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office the names of people who test positive for coronavirus, just the addresses they are associated with. She said deputies are instructed to don personal protective equipment — known as PPE — when responding to every call. PPE is of secondary importance when deputies are responding urgently to emergencies, she said.

In terms of privacy concerns, Kirby said law enforcement officers deal every day with sensitive personal information and take seriously their responsibility to safeguard the data. Those who breach that responsibility are investigated by internal affairs. 

“We understand what the dangers and the repercussions of sharing that sensitive information could be,” she said.

Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, says it has been sharing infection information with the sheriff’s offices in its jurisdiction since early in the pandemic. They have only ever provided addresses, however, and the information is transmitted through encrypted email with a warning that state and federal law requires the data to be held strictly confidential.

After March, when it became clear there was community transmission, Arapahoe County ceased its request for the information sharing. But Tri-County has continued to send the infection data to Adams and Douglas counties on a “daily basis,” Askenazi said.

Askenazi said the information sharing is revisited every month. 

Cmdr. Mike Wagner at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office says Boulder County Public Health began sharing information with emergency dispatch centers at the request of public safety officials. 

“We receive very limited information,” Wagner said. 

Namely, dispatchers are given an address where someone has been confirmed to have the coronavirus along with a date that the record of their infection can be “purged from our files.” Names are not provided, he said.

“If fire/EMS/law enforcement are dispatched to an address with a confirmed COVID-19 case, this allows the responders to don the proper PPE prior to entering the residence or making contact with anyone inside,” he said. “The information was provided due to lack of PPE for all calls, so this allowed first responders to use the stronger PPE when a confirmed risk was being encountered.”

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment shares only addresses where people infected with coronavirus live, leaving out names, the agency says. 

A spokeswoman for the city said the goal is to make sure first responders “are aware and can don the appropriate protective gear if they are called to that address.”

The Associated Press found that public health officials in at least two thirds of U.S. states are sharing the addresses of people who tested positive with first responders — from police officers to firefighters to EMTs.

Public health officials in at least 10 states, according to the AP, go further and also share the 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. There have been 287,481 positive cases in those states, mostly in New Jersey.

According to the national Fraternal Order of Police, more than 100 police officers in the United States have died from the coronavirus. Hundreds more have tested positive, resulting in staffing crunches.

A 41-year-old El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy, Jeff Hopkins, died in April of the coronavirus. He worked in the county’s jail.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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