Health department gives names, addresses of Tennesseans with COVID-19 to law enforcement

Image courtesy of Getty Images.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.

The Department of Health is providing the names and addresses of Tennessee residents who test positive for COVID-19 to sheriffs and chiefs of police across the state on a daily basis — a practice raising concerns about privacy.

The offer to share the otherwise protected health information with law enforcement came at the request of Gov. Bill Lee, according to two letters obtained by the Tennessee Lookout.

“Health has a list of names and addresses of people in Tennessee who have tested positive or are receiving treatment for COVID-19,” a letter dated April 20 to state police chiefs said. The letter was sent by Valerie Nagoshiner, chief of state for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Gov. Bill Lee (official photo)
Gov. Bill Lee (official photo)

“Health will make that list available to you and send you an updated version of the list each day, provided that your office has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with health.”

A letter with the same offer was sent to the state’s sheriffs on April 9.

The letters and memorandum make clear that the names of all individuals who have tested positive, even those with no past or present interaction with law enforcement, will be disclosed to police departments and sheriffs’ offices. As of Thursday, 14,906 Tennesseans have tested positive for the virus, among them nursing home residents, meat processing plant workers, healthcare providers and children.

So far, 32 county sheriff’s offices and 35 police departments have entered into agreements with the state to receive the information, said Shelley Walker, a department spokeswoman. Walker said additional law enforcement entities wishing to receive the information are added daily.

First page of a letter from the Tennessee Department of Health to county sheriff's offering to disclose personal information of COVID-19 patients.
First page of a letter from the Tennessee Department of Health to county sheriff’s offering to disclose personal information of COVID-19 patients.
Page two of letter from Tennessee Department of Health to county sheriffs.
Page two of letter from Tennessee Department of Health to county sheriffs.

“The purpose of disclosures is to prevent or control the spread of COVID-19, minimize the threat of exposure to law enforcement officers and employees, and protect the health of individuals in custody,” Walker said in emailed responses to questions.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the state should place a high priority on ensuring first responders are protected but criticized the disclosure of personal health information as “not sound policy.”

“Even in the midst of extraordinary circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic, privacy rights should be protected,” she said. “Disclosing the names and addresses of individuals who will never have contact with law enforcement raises fundamental concerns about privacy.”

Weinberg said the information sharing does not protect law enforcement personnel, who may encounter individuals who have not been tested or are asymptomatic carriers of the disease. 

“Not only is it not sound policy, it is not focused on providing the protective gear that officers need,” she said. 

The letters went out to sheriffs and police chiefs in Tennessee’s 95 counties accompanied by a memorandum — and a message from the governor.

“Governor Lee encourages each of you to enter into the MOU with Health to allow your officers and employees to protect themselves by having the information Health is providing,” the letters said. 

A Lee spokesman did not respond to questions about what prompted the disclosures or whether the governor had any concerns about the privacy violations of Tennesseans who land on the list because of their health and not because they have committed a crime.

COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allows public agencies to release the names of individuals infected or exposed to the virus to law enforcement, paramedics and other first responders without their permission. 

The federal guidance said the disclosures must serve a specific purpose. Among the purposes outlined in the guidance: to provide treatment, when notification is required by law and to prevent or control the spread of disease. 

The letters from Tennessee’s health department tell sheriffs and police chiefs to “instruct officers that they may not provide inferior service or responsiveness to an individual on the list.” A health department phone number to report individuals suspected of providing “inferior service or responsiveness” is provided.

The information, the letters said, can only be used for limited purposes described in a memorandum of understanding.

The memorandum lists those purposes as:

to prevent or control the spread of COVID-19, 

minimize the imminent threat of exposure of COVID-19 to employees, officers and individuals in custody

provide healthcare to any individual who has tested positive

provide for the health and safety of inmates and staff in jails
enforce the law on the premises of correctional institutes and 

administer and maintain the safety, security, and good order of the correctional institute