Amid the COVID-19 crisis and the recent "shelter-at-home" partial lockdown in Cherokee County to stave off infections, transparency in government is more important than ever.
The number of cases is certain to climb here, just as they have across the state. It would be easy to lay blame at the feet of certain individuals – especially state-level politicians who delayed action, or didn't take drastic enough preventive measures. But the truth is, a heightened tendency toward secrecy, plus nebulous policies, can work just as effectively to spread the virus.
An enormous constraint on information has been HIPAA laws. Already-extant privacy laws work in tandem with these restrictions, and privacy was a factor during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. It's easy to understand the public frustration with COVID-19, because that virus can be passed more readily than HIV/AIDS, for which blood transfusions or sexual contact were key culprits.
People naturally want to know the identities of those who have tested positive for COVID-19, because they wonder whether they've been in close contact with them. But HIPAA prevents health care providers and officials from disclosing that information; they can only release general details, such as where the person lives, the age, and the gender. In some cases, the public may learn where the individual works.
It's admirable when people – especially public officials, community leaders and other high-profile people – disclose that they've been exposed. There should be no shame in coming forward with this information. At the same time, it must be remembered that those who test positive for COVID-19 are victims themselves, and sometimes, they may already be too ill to give permission for their names to be broadcast, even if they wanted to.
It may be true that staffers at various local institutions, governmental bodies and businesses have been told not to reveal names about infections in their arenas. If the intent is to protect a COVID-19 victim from public ridicule, stave off panic, or to comply with HIPAA, restrictions are necessary, even if some people don't understand that. It's only when leaders use opacity as a reason to mask their own questionable decisions that problems occur.
Social media has created a dilemma in these circumstances. Names of victims may have been disclosed on Facebook timelines, but that doesn't mean reputable media outlets can or would violate HIPAA by repeating the gossip. And gossip it remains, unless an official source or family member releases it to the public. Even a document in hand, while perhaps offering proof, still flies in the face of HIPAA.
Hospital, tribal, educational and community leaders should be as transparent as they can about COVID-19, without violating HIPAA. They could, for instance, indicate someone who tested positive worked in a certain broad "area," provided the identity couldn't be easily discovered. Otherwise, the public will just have to trust that these leaders are acting the way they supposedly did during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, notifying anyone who might have had close contact with infected individuals while preserving their privacy.