Public health officials in Grants Pass and Medford say they continue to keep basic information about local coronavirus cases to themselves because of federal and state privacy laws.
There have been 10 confirmed cases in Josephine County, but local public health officials have kept even ages, genders, and hometowns from the public. For days they wouldn’t even say how many tests had been performed.
In Jackson County, public health officials over the weekend decided to release age ranges and the gender of its 20 infected persons. But they still have no plans to release the city of residence or the ZIP code where infected persons live, even though other jurisdictions in the U.S. do so, including in the Seattle and Los Angeles areas.
“We know people want this information,” said Tanya Phillips, health promotion program manager for Jackson County. “We’re definitely looking at what information can we release. It’s a balance.”
Jackson County had enough cases for public health officials to feel comfortable releasing the age range and gender of infected persons, without running undue risk to a person’s privacy, according to Phillips.
“We’re really trying to protect the family,” she said.
Josephine County Public Health Director Michael Weber said Monday he would check with state officials to determine if he could release more information, including the status of cases, such as hospitalizations, recoveries and methods of transmission.
Results of tests would continue to be released.
“Probably in the next couple days we’re going to start releasing a little more information,” he said.
However, Weber didn’t favor releasing the city of residence or ZIP code of persons who test positive. Nor does the Oregon Health Authority.
“We’re going to stay in alignment” with state guidance, Weber said. “It doesn’t do the community any good to know the ZIP code.”
If he released information about the age and gender of a person living in small Cave Junction, for example, people would start calling around to find out who it was, he said.
“Immediately we would see people calling local businesses [to ask about sick employees],” Weber said. “It becomes a very rapid conversation.”
The Oregon Health Authority last week, on Gov. Kate Brown’s orders, and at the urging of media organizations who lobbied her, began reporting additional information about cases and the capacity of the state’s health care system to care for infected persons.
The new information released by the agency included age range of infected persons, availability of hospital beds, and amount of gear and equipment in state stockpiles. Requests for comment from Brown’s press office were not returned in time to be included in this story.
There are times when releasing more case specifics is considered justified, due to community risk. For example, Lane County released details of a case involving an infected person who attended a particular church service, in an effort to warn the public.
“Sometimes you have to look at the risk [to the public],” Phillips said.
Public health authorities make it a priority to track down people who had close contact with an infected person. Those people are then notified and advised.
Releasing city or ZIP code information might give a false sense of security to people living in an area with no announced cases, according to Phillips, who said the virus likely is circulating “in every city.”
“We have rapid community spread,” she said.
Reach reporter Shaun Hall at 541-474-3726 or email@example.com.
Two counties, two approaches
While Josephine County declines to provide demographic details about local COVID-19 patients, Jackson County is less opaque about new coronavirus cases.
Josephine County press release Sunday: “Three additional patients from Josephine County have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the county’s total number of confirmed cases to eight. … No further details about these cases will be released at this time.”
Jackson County press release Sunday: “Jackson County Public Health is reporting six new COVID-19 cases. There is now a total of 19 COVID-19 cases in Jackson County. Of the six new cases, 50% are male and 50% are female. Two are between the ages of 20-29, one between 50-59, one between 60-69, and two between 70-79.”