In some areas of the United States, local governments are sharing the names and addresses of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 with police and other first responders. This is intended to keep police, EMTs, and firefighters safe should they find themselves headed to a call at the residence of someone who has tested positive for the virus.
However, this information fails to protect first responders from unidentified, asymptomatic, and pre-symptomatic cases. It may also discourage people from getting tested, contribute to stigmatization of infected people, reduce the quality of policing in vulnerable communities, and incentivize police to avoid calls for help because of fear of contracting the virus.
In response to the current health crisis, some governments are seeking to collect and deploy personal data in new ways that are untested or ineffective, including by means of face recognition, geolocation tracking, and fever detection cameras. Such new tactics and technologies must be closely evaluated to determine whether their use is justified, minimized, transparent, and unbiased. Sharing the home addresses of people who have contracted COVID-19 with first responders does not pass muster.
What is being proposed?
Some local officials in Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina are already collecting the names and addresses of people who test positive for COVID-19 and turning that data over to local first responders. The proponents of this tactic argue that it will allow first responders to take necessary precautions when they respond to a call from a home where a resident has tested positive.
However, this would likely do little to protect first responders, who are currently experimenting with ways to avoid contracting the virus. Many cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, present mild symptoms, or are undiagnosed because of the lack of testing in many parts of the United States. Giving first responders data on confirmed COVID-19 individuals may lull police, paramedics, or fire fighters into a false sense of security. First responders should respond to every call as if someone inside might be infected—making data sharing unnecessary. Indeed, many interactions between first responders and members of the public do not occur at a home, so first responders must be equipped with the tools and training needed to treat every contact as an infection risk.
What are the concerns?
There already are too many hurdles for people in the United States to get a COVID-19 test. Sharing the medical data and addresses of people who test positive could create one more: it may chill some people from getting tested. For example, vulnerable populations such as unhoused or undocumented individuals may not be willing to get tested if they know their information will ends up in the hands of government agencies other than those managing public health. Indeed, the tactic here contradicts a basic norm of data privacy: when the government collects sensitive data about identifiable people for one purpose, the government generally should not use that data for another purpose. Also, when hundreds of thousands of first responders and dispatchers obtain access to this information, there is inherent risk of misuse and breach.
Likewise, there is historical precedent that the accumulation of personal health data in the hands of police and other government officials creates stigma and bias against those who are infected and their communities. For instance, some public health experts have pointed out the parallels between keeping a list of those who test positive for COVID-19, and the stigma that followed a person who tested positive for HIV during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, some people and doctors during the 1918 influenza pandemic avoided disclosing or diagnosing patients out of a fear of being quarantined, shamed, or stigmatized.
Moreover, the virus is disproportionately harming neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by people of color, which are already underserved by public safety and public health institutions. Disclosing the addresses of infected people to first responders may amplify this problem, by discouraging prompt response to homes that put responders at greater risk. This reluctance might even spill over to a neighborhood readily identifiable with a specific race or ethnicity associated with shared COVID-19 testing data.
Sharing data from COVID-19 tests with first responders may seem like an easy fix to address a serious problem, but it won’t be as helpful as suggested. First responders should continue to take every precaution when answering calls and initiating interactions with the public, and should not rely on personal health data from the misleadingly small number of positive tests in their community.
The sharing of this data may harm our public health goals. At a moment when people need the government to assist them in testing, containment, and treatment, the government in turn needs the cooperation of the people—information sharing of this type may erode that crucial relationship.