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Finding out about coronavirus cases in Arkansas is a tricky problem because most of that information is protected under the privacy rule the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

But some people need to know a little more information than others, especially those who are responding to medical or other kinds of emergencies. The Office of Civil Rights under the federal Department of Health and Human Services recently issued new guidelines for how those emergency responders would be notified.

The guidance explains the circumstances under which a covered entity may disclose personal health information such as the name or other identifying information about individuals, without their HIPAA authorization, and provides examples including:

• When needed to provide treatment;

• When required by law;

• When first responders may be at risk for an infection; and

• When disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat.

In a weekly teleconference with various city and county leaders, that very information was a topic of conversation.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health, there had been 12 negatives tests for the virus in Boone County as of Monday afternoon. There was a range of between one and four positive cases, but the map includes no other information.

Harrison Mayor Jerry Jackson and Boone County Judge Robert Hathaway issued a joint statement earlier this month when the first positive coronavirus case was diagnosed in Boone County, specifically in the Harrison city limits.

Daniel Bolen, Boone County 911 administrator, said he had been informed that the mayor and county judge are notified of the first positive case.

But, after that, the county’s 911 administrator is notified of the location of the positive case, but that’s all the information they are given.

That way, the 911 dispatcher can notify the first responders being sent to a scene if the address matches the information provided by the Health Department.

Still, Bolen said the department isn’t notified of any locations where people are under self-quarantine or where possible cases are being monitored.

State Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said in a briefing Monday that if a significant number of positive cases seem to come from a single place, the Health Department will make an attempt to individually notify each person who might have been exposed. If that’s not possible, the department would issue a public notice.

Bolen said he was in the process of procuring more personal protective equipment for first responders and expected more shipments in the very near future.

(1) comment


Someone I know sent me the following information about the HIPAA provisions being waived right now. It is pasted next: In response to President Donald J. Trump’s declaration of a nationwide emergency concerning COVID-19, and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex M. Azar’s earlier declaration of a public health emergency on January 31, 2020, Secretary Azar has exercised the authority to waive sanctions and penalties against a covered hospital that does not comply with the following provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule:

• the requirements to obtain a patient's agreement to speak with family members or friends involved in the patient’s care. See 45 CFR 164.510(b).

• the requirement to honor a request to opt-out of the facility directory. See 45 CFR 164.510(a).

• the requirement to distribute a notice of privacy practices. See 45 CFR 164.520.

• the patient's right to request privacy restrictions. See 45 CFR 164.522(a).

• the patient's right to request confidential communications. See 45 CFR 164.522(b).

The waiver became effective on March 15, 2020. When the Secretary issues such a waiver, it only applies: (1) in the emergency area identified in the public health emergency declaration; (2) to hospitals that have instituted a disaster protocol; and (3) for up to 72 hours from the time the hospital implements its disaster protocol. When the Presidential or Secretarial declaration terminates, a hospital must then comply with all the requirements of the Privacy Rule for any patient still under its care, even if 72 hours have not elapsed since implementation of its disaster protocol.

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