Minn. police ask for locations of people with COVID-19 diagnoses to boost responder safety
Police statewide are asking officials for the addresses of those infected so first responders can prepare properly
MINNEAPOLIS — Police across Minnesota are asking state authorities to share the location of people infected with COVID-19 with them to prevent the virus' spread among first responders and the public.
The state's three largest professional law enforcement associations — the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs Association and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — appealed directly to Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
"Sadly, each day our associations are receiving more reports of peace officers testing positive for the virus, presenting symptoms of COVID-19 or self-quarantining after coming in contact with Minnesotans on routine calls-for-service," the three groups jointly wrote Malcolm in an April 1 letter. "More troubling perhaps is the fact that law enforcement could have essential healthcare information that would allow them to better prepare for these encounters, limit their exposure to the deadly virus and contain the spread of COVID-19 in our communities."
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the police chiefs association, said Monday that a statewide survey last week of all police and sheriffs offices yielded 229 responses.
Of the agencies reporting, 15% had officers who self-quarantined with COVID-19 symptoms. About 10% said that was due to officers coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus or someone awaiting test results, Skoogman said.
Exact numbers were not available, including actual infections among officers, but at least two St. Paul police officers have been infected.
Department of Health officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Skoogman said the groups have not heard back from Malcolm's office or Gov. Tim Walz, who was copied on the letter.
"We're collectively concerned about the safety of police officers when they come in contact with citizens and also concerned about officers unknowingly spreading the COVID-19 virus in communities across the state," Skoogman said.
The groups, representing more than 300 police chiefs, 87 county sheriffs and about 10,400 officers, are asking the department of health to share COVID-19 infection locations so they can take precautions in responding to calls at the addresses and manage the use of limited protective gear.
"Unfortunately, we don't have enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), gloves, masks, etc., to suit up properly for every call," Skoogman said.
The letter included a copy of a memo from the Ohio health commissioner authorizing sharing such information with first responders, and highlighted recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.
The federal recommendations said that patient privacy protections allowed divulging information about COVID-19 infections to first responders for a number of reasons: to prevent spread of the disease, "when first responders may be at risk of infection" and to lessen the threat to public health, among others.
"Most frustrating of all is the fact that your agency has the authority to release such information but is refusing to do so," said the groups' letter.
Skoogman said that Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida are other states sharing the information with first responders.
The three professional associations are in ongoing conversations with Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety John Harrington about the issue, Skoogman said.
"[Harrington] has told us that discussions are taking place, but as each day passes, we're becoming more and more concerned," he said.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, wrote Malcolm on April 3 supporting the groups' effort.
"Due to limited information available to them, they must face the extremely likely possibility of being infected by making the critical decision to don garments and masks for their own protection for nearly every call," Limmer wrote.
Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and the Legislative Commission on Data Practices, said state law allows the department of health to share location information in some circumstances.
"We understand there are [privacy] concerns, however, we're confident we can work with officials from the health community to create procedures that will protect this data," Skoogman said.