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New York Coalition For Open Government seeks greater transparency from Erie County regarding COVID-19; executive's office explains policy


Wed, Nov 4th 2020 05:15 pm

The New York Coalition For Open Government, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to transparency in government, is calling upon Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the Erie County Health Department to release more COVID-19 information to the public.

A press release stated, “Erie County claims that federal HIPAA law prevents them from disclosing COVID-19 cluster information to the public. Yet, other Western New York counties such as Niagara, Cattaraugus, Allegany and Chautauqua release COVID-19 cluster information. The New York State Health Department has stated that counties can release information that is not personally identifiable or protected health information.”

At Thursday’s meeting of the Erie County Legislature, a resolution was introduced calling for the county to release information that identifies when a nursing home suffers a COVID-19 outbreak. The New York Coalition For Open Government supports this resolution.

Paul Wolf, Esq., president of the New York Coalition For Open Government, said, “Erie County needs to be more transparent in sharing COVID-19 information with the public.”

In an email Wednesday afternoon, Peter Anderson, press secretary for the Office of the Erie County Executive, explained, “The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (‘HIPAA’) protects the privacy and security of an individual’s Protected Health Information (‘PHI’). HIPAA permits disclosure, without consultation, of PHI under certain delineated exceptions to the privacy rules. HIPPA does not mandate disclosure of PHI under any circumstance. 

“Under HIPAA, the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) is both a Public Health Authority and a covered entity. Section 164.512(b) of HIPAA provides that a Public Health Authority which is also a covered entity may disclose PHI, without consultation, for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease.

“When ECDOH is notified that an individual has tested positive for COVID-19, a case investigation is initiated. This case investigation results in the isolation of any positive COVID-19 cases and the quarantine of all individuals meeting the case definition of close contact to a positive case of COVID-19. In the context of a case investigation, the ECDOH may disclose, without consultation, the minimum amount of PHI that is necessary to complete the case investigation.

“Generally, public identification of facilities/businesses that experience positive COVID-19 cases does not aid the ECDOH in preventing or controlling COVID-19. Should it become necessary to publicly identify a particular facility/business in order to protect the health and safety of the residents of Erie County, ECDOH will not hesitate to do so.”

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