Tenn. to give LEOs across the state names, addresses of people with COVID-19
Activist groups raised concerns about privacy violations, but officials say the information is being disseminated securely and in the name of keeping officers safe
CHATTANOOGA — The Tennessee Department of Health is providing the names and addresses of residents who test positive for COVID-19 to sheriffs and chiefs of police across the state on a daily basis — a practice raising concerns about privacy.
"Health has a list of names and addresses of people in Tennessee who have tested positive or are receiving treatment for COVID-19," a letter dated April 20 to state police chiefs said.
The letter was sent by Valerie Nagoshiner, chief of state for the Tennessee Department of Health.
"Health will make that list available to you and send you an updated version of the list each day, provided that your office has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with health."
A letter with the same offer was sent to the state's sheriffs on April 9.
The letters and memorandum make clear that the names of all individuals who have tested positive, even those with no past or present interaction with law enforcement, will be disclosed to police departments and sheriffs' offices. As of Thursday, 14,906 Tennesseans have tested positive for the virus, among them nursing home residents, meat processing plant workers, health care providers and children.
So far, 32 county sheriff's offices and 35 police departments have entered into agreements with the state to receive the information, said Shelley Walker, a department spokeswoman. Those include Collegedale and East Ridge police and the Chattanooga Housing police in Southeast Tennessee, Walker said.
She also said Manchester police in Coffee County have an agreement with the state to receive the names.
"It's just for safety reasons," Mark Yother, Manchester police chief, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "It's just another step in trying to keep officers safe."
Yother said the names and addresses are held by dispatchers who alert officers if there's a police call at an address where someone who has been confirmed with COVID-19 lives.
Dispatchers do not provide information over the radio, the chief said, they ask the officer to call in for information. He said the information is kept in a safe place.
"We're trying to protect their privacy as much as possible without endangering an officer," Yother said. "Fortunately, we don't have a lot of cases here like they do in the bigger cities," he said, "but it's still concerning."
The Hamilton County sheriff has not signed up for the state information, according to Walker, although it's possible the same data comes from the county health department. Sheriff's spokesman Matt Lea declined to provide any information until after the weekend.
Walker said additional law enforcement entities wishing to receive the information are added daily.
"The purpose of disclosures is to prevent or control the spread of COVID-19, minimize the threat of exposure to law enforcement officers and employees and protect the health of individuals in custody," Walker said in emailed responses to questions.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the state should place a high priority on ensuring first responders are protected but criticized the disclosure of personal health information as "not sound policy."
"Even in the midst of extraordinary circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic, privacy rights should be protected," Weinberg said. "Disclosing the names and addresses of individuals who will never have contact with law enforcement raises fundamental concerns about privacy."
Weinberg said the information sharing does not protect law enforcement personnel, who may encounter individuals who have not been tested or are asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
"Not only is it not sound policy, it is not focused on providing the protective gear that officers need," she said.
The letters went out to sheriffs and police chiefs in Tennessee's 95 counties accompanied by a memorandum that spells out six purposes of disclosure and a message from the governor.
"Governor Lee encourages each of you to enter into the MOU with Health to allow your officers and employees to protect themselves by having the information Health is providing," the letters said.
A Lee spokesman did not respond to questions about what prompted the disclosures or whether the governor had any concerns about the privacy violations of Tennesseans who land on the list because of their health and not because they have committed a crime.
COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allows public agencies to release the names of individuals infected or exposed to the virus to law enforcement, paramedics and other first responders without their permission.
The federal guidance said the disclosures must serve a specific purpose. Among the purposes outlined in the guidance: to provide treatment, when notification is required by law and to prevent or control the spread of disease.
The letters from Tennessee's health department tell sheriffs and police chiefs to "instruct officers that they may not provide inferior service or responsiveness to an individual on the list." A health department phone number to report individuals suspected of providing "inferior service or responsiveness" is provided.
The information, the letters said, can only be used for limited purposes described in a memorandum of understanding.
The memorandum lists those purposes as:
- to prevent or control the spread of COVID-19,
- minimize the imminent threat of exposure of COVID-19 to employees, officers and individuals in custody
- provide health care to any individual who has tested positive
- provide for the health and safety of inmates and staff in jails
- enforce the law on the premises of correctional institutes and
- administer and maintain the safety, security, and good order of the correctional institute.