Local officials have confirmed the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) is sharing the addresses of individuals who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 with 911 officials around the state so first responders can adequately prepare if they’re dispatched to those homes.
On Wednesday, a report from VICE news revealed public health officials in Alabama and Massachusetts had each adopted policies aimed at keeping police, firefighters and emergency medical service providers from contracting and spreading COVID-19 on the job.
Charlie McNichol, director of the Mobile County Communications District that oversees the local 911 system, told Lagniappe that he and his staff are directly involved in that process, adding that he personally receives the addresses of confirmed COVID-19 patients from the ADPH daily.
“We flag those in our [Computer Assisted Dispatch] system so if a call comes into one of the addresses for any first responders — fire, police or medical — we let them know that location is suspected of having a positive case,” McNichol said. “I think we owe that to our first responders. It doesn’t give us anyone’s name or any other personal information about the individual, it just lets us notify them that someone at that address has tested positive for COVID-19 so that they can have their guards up.”
As of 2 p.m., there are 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mobile County and 24 in Baldwin County.
Some have raised questions about whether it is a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s provisions protecting patient privacy to release those address to 911, but McNichol said attorneys from MCCD and ADPH reviewed the policy before it was put into effect.
Arrol Sheehan, a spokesperson for ADPH, told VICE News that state health officials made a mutual decision with members of Alabama’s statewide 911 board to release the information in order to protect first responders.
Sheehan hasn’t responded to inquiries from Lagniappe directly but has previously cited a state law allowing the dissemination of that information to third parties that could be at risk of exposure.
“The Alabama Department of Public Health was requested to provide addresses of patients home quarantined for COVID-19 to the Alabama 911 Board for the protection of first responders,” she said in a statement to VICE News, adding that the department of health has also issued guidance on how the information should be used. “Physicians or the State Health Officer or his designee may notify a third party of the presence of a contagious disease in an individual where there is a foreseeable, real or probable risk of transmission of the disease.”
Locally, McNichol said information in MCCD’s CAD system isn’t released to the public or to anyone at the agency who isn’t on a “need-to-know” basis for each call. He said Other information about specific addresses is also included in the same system as well.
If a house is known for frequent calls or if there’s any unique circumstance, in most cases, McNichol said first responders on the ground are notified by dispatchers.
Alabama’s decision to release this information to 911 centers comes as concerns about first responders contracting COVID-19 continue to grow statewide. In Mobile, 28 police and firefighters have already tested positive for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies using rapid serum blood tests.
Those tests detect COVID-19 antibodies in the blood to determine if a body has begun to mount a defense to the disease. Their antibodies could mean the body is currently fighting the disease, or that the virus has recently run its course. Either way, their presence in someone’s blood means they had COVID-19.
Officials in Mobile are currently in the process of testing more first responders but other Alabama cities are going through similar situations. Tuscaloosa recently had dozens of police and firefighters off the street after a first responder tested positive for COVID-19.
Because first responders are crucial in a time of emergency, they — like medical professionals — are a higher priority for testing and treatment because if they become sick they run the risk of infecting one another and members of the public that they interact with on a day-to-day basis.
McNichol said that is exactly the kind of potential situation MCCD wants to avoid in Mobile County. In addition to using the addresses of COVID-19 positive cases received through ADPH, he also said dispatchers have started asking additional questions of 911 callers regardless of the type of emergency.
“In a medical emergency or not, dispatchers would always ask questions about medical history on the call but even other types of calls like law enforcement, we’re asking the caller: ‘Has anyone at your address been sick or tested positive for COVID-19,” McNichol said. “Most people voluntarily give that information to us, but even if they don’t for some reason, we’re certainly asking.”
In addition to first responders on the street, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office is also working with public health officials to prevent a cluster of COVID-19 infections from spreading throughout Mobile Metro Jail. So far, two corrections officers and one inmate have confirmed cases of the disease.
Warden Trey Oliver told Lagniappe Thursday that inmates who were in contact with those infected patients are being separated through a tiered quarantine system.
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