Officials differ on sharing local COVID-19 info
Consider everywhere a ‘hot spot.’ People should not let their guard down no matter where they are.
— Tom Scanlon, Middlebury health officer
ADDISON COUNTY — The Addison Independent’s e-newsletters about COVID-19 and our daily updates on the number of cases in Addison County and throughout the state have been well read. People want to know how and where the coronavirus is advancing, in order to shape their travel and shopping habits during the pandemic.
We at the Independent still receive occasional inquiries from readers on why we we’re not offering town-by-town breakdown of Addison County’s COVID-19 cases, which stood at 61 as of this writing.
We’d like to offer readers that specificity, but the Vermont Department of Health (DOH) and the administration of Gov. Phil Scott are declining to break down the state’s coronavirus stats in increments any finer than county-by-county numbers.
This newspaper and other state media have asked for town-by-town numbers of COVID-19 cases, noting Massachusetts and New Hampshire as examples of nearby states that are providing that breakdown.
But Vermont officials are reluctant to follow suit, believing that listing COVID-19 numbers in some of the smaller towns would be tantamount to outing patients.
“At this time, Vermont will continue to report data on county- and state-based levels,” Department of Health spokesman Ben Truman told the Independent via email. “COVID-19 is spreading throughout Vermont’s communities, and many people may have it and be contagious days before they show symptoms. So whether a county is reporting one case or 100 cases, Vermonters should presume the virus is in their town, and act to protect themselves and others.”
Truman said the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, “protects information that is potentially identifiable. Factors that might make some person identifiable include gender, age, race, health condition, travel history and the like, all within the context of a given geographic and population bound.”
He argued that while a patient living within Burlington (45,000-plus people) might not be identifiable, a hypothetical patient living in Victory (population 87) might be.
“The Department has determined that disclosing cases by county sufficiently protects potentially identifiable information, whereas (by) town may not,” Truman concluded.
A February 2020 bulletin issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights suggests that HIPAA is not an ironclad guarantee to privacy during a pandemic.
“The HIPAA Privacy Rule protects the privacy of patients’ health information but is balanced to ensure that appropriate uses and disclosures of the information still may be made when necessary to treat a patient, to protect the nation’s public health, and for other critical purposes,” the department’s bulletin states in part.
Some Vergennes and Ferrisburgh municipal officials have voiced concern in recent days about the general public not having access to town-by-town coronavirus stats.
Jeff Fritz, mayor of the Little City, said knowing if a Vergennes patient were among the county’s COVID-19 patients might change the way people perceive the virus.
“I guess if you really want to push me, I would fall on the side of knowledge being power,” Fritz said, adding, “in this case, the knowledge of how to proceed is absolutely critical. It would be very, very important. And it would have been important to know in the very beginning of this how close to home this was. Because for many people it wasn’t real for a very long time.”
That said, Fritz acknowledged concern about the potential for individuals in small communities to be identified and perhaps treated poorly.
“That’s what scares me the most,” he said.
Vergennes City Manager Dan Hofman believes the only downside to providing town-by-town coronavirus stats is that information might scare some people.
“What would be the downside to disclosing that information?” he said. “I don’t think it would hurt. If anything it would bring awareness to people, bring it down to an even more localized level. I think it’s always good to be transparent.”
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chair Jessica James said she’s also a fan of transparency when it comes to COVID numbers.
“I feel we need to be as transparent as necessary, so I don’t disagree with the town-by-town, so do it,” she said. “What’s it going to hurt?”
Tom Hanley is Middlebury’s longtime police chief and local emergency management director. He doesn’t place a premium on town-by-town statistics.
“Until we know where people actually contracted the disease, their home of residence is really insignificant,” he said. “This can’t be done until the state can get going with contact tracing. Contact tracing is very time- and personnel-intensive.”
He cited the mythical example of a Middlebury resident returning from Florida and registering a positive COVID-19 test.
Such a result, he said, “doesn’t mean Middlebury is a hot spot…. I suppose it could lead to some misconceptions, or worse yet, lead people to believe that some places are safer than others. Our take at the police department is that it really doesn’t matter to us. We go on the assumption that anyone can be a carrier so we proceed as such…. With movement across borders as people follow these statistics, we see more transmission of the disease. So using Middlebury as an example, for this to be a helpful statistic, you’d really need to know where those with the disease had been in the prior two weeks. Without contact tracing, the town stats are fairly meaningless.”
Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, is a member of the House Health Care Committee. She said she doesn’t believe the state should offer town-by-town COVID stats.
“Not only do I think it would not be helpful, I think it could be harmful, especially as people are struggling with the stay-at-home order and there’s an organized movement afoot to be non-compliant,” she said.
That said, Cordes believes town data — made public after the pandemic — could better inform health officials on how the coronavirus spread through the state, and thus help Vermont become better prepared to face future pandemics. Such a retrospective could include other measurable variables such as dates, ages, race, economic status, comorbidities, housing status, and compliance with measures to slow transmission, according to Cordes.
Tom Scanlon is Middlebury’s health officer. He said providing town-by-town stats could give some folks a false sense of security about where they might be safe, and unsafe, from the coronavirus.
“Consider everywhere a ‘hot spot,’” Scanlon said. “People should not let their guard down no matter where they are. The known and quarantined individuals are not normally the greatest problem. Who they were in contact with prior to being symptomatic is of the greater importance.”
Added Scanlon: “I have lost friends/acquaintances as a result of this insidious virus. It is for real.”
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