Elsewhere on this site, Richard Beattie raises the question of whether a 24-year-old federal patient privacy law should be relaxed as a way to better combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Beattie argues that the threat to the public health overrides any concerns about keeping a person’s medical condition secret. By publishing the names and addresses of those who test positive for COVID-19, he argues, others who might have come into close contact with the individual would become more vigilant about their own condition and take preventative measures to be sure they weren’t transmitting the virus further until they were sure they were in the clear.
Beattie is not alone in this sentiment. We have heard it expressed in other quarters, too. It probably reflects frustration over the paucity of information that state and local health officials have been providing for many of those who have tested positive. The hospitals and Mississippi State Department of Health have to be careful, of course, not to violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, but they could provide more details than they do. For example, they could say where the person worked and possibly where the transmission is believed to have occurred and still preserve the person’s anonymity, if anonymity is what the person desires. If the workplace has numerous employees, the chance of the person being identified from such limited information would be remote.
As far as making public identification mandatory for those with COVID-19, that would go too far for our comfort level. Given the panic that this outbreak has spurred, there is a possibility that those so identified could be ostracized, or worse, not just while they are contagious but even afterward.
COVID-19 may be novel, but it is not the only transmittable disease that poses potentially significant risks to others. Should people with AIDS, HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases be outed, too? What about those with tuberculosis, measles or even the seasonal flu? For the elderly or those with underlying health problems, these illnesses can pose a death threat to them, too.
Furthermore, compelling the identification of those with the coronavirus has an uncomfortable echo to biblical times, when Jewish law required those with leprosy to tear their clothes and cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” so as to warn others to stay away.
All that said, it could help reduce the spread of the disease if those who do test positive for COVID-19 voluntarily identify themselves, at least while the number of cases is relatively small. Dr. Jim Phillips, the pastor of North Greenwood Baptist Church, took that approach on Friday when he announced on Facebook that his wife, Cynthia, had been infected by the virus. That disclosure could be beneficial to those who came into close contact with her in the days before she isolated herself at home.
Others who test positive should consider going public, too. If they are not comfortable doing so, though, that decision needs to be respected.
Disclosure should remain a personal choice and not one forced on them.