The Iowa Department of Public Health cracked down on the circulation of zip-code specific COVID-19 positive case numbers after an Allamakee County local official began publishing biweekly reports online. That data pointed to the rural county’s coronavirus outbreak centering in the meatpacking plant town of Postville.
At-large Waukon City Council member John Ellingson in early May first received and then posted on Facebook the Veteran’s Memorial Hospital data—which he then corroborated with the Allamakee sheriff’s counts—after the county Board of Supervisors drafted a letter asking local public health officials for its release. He said the state began restricting his access to the information shortly after he made the post—IDPH called local health officials, law enforcement and others suggesting their jobs were at risk if they released the zip-code data because of potential Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations.
“[The Iowa Department of Public Health] made contact with different people in the community, different professionals, and I think they were trying to figure out where my information came from. They insinuated HIPAA violations and the penalties of such, and everyone got really scared for their careers, for their jobs,” Ellingson said. “So because of where the information was coming from, and they’re friends of mine, I do not want one of my friends to lose a job because of a bureaucratic threat.”
Though IDPH had initially denied Ellingson’s records request in April for the zip-code specific data, Allamakee County’s Board of Supervisors eventually complied by making a motion to request it release the statistics. They did this after the county attorney weighed in and thought it was not a major HIPAA violation, said Supervisor Dan Byrnes during a May 13 Board of Health meeting held over Zoom.
Allamakee County Public Health Director Lisa Moose said at the same meeting that their department was set to release the information every Monday and Thursday—which included numbers of hospitalized, recovered and deceased county residents.
Under HIPPA, there are two paragraphs that talk about the release of information. One, which the state cited in this case, discusses the Safe Harbor provision—a 20,000 person standard in order for the release of data or else the identity of individuals would become compromised.
Allamakee’s population is around 14,000, and the local zip-code counts are well below the threshold, allowing the state to hold back local data from Ellingson.
But Ellingson questioned why the state was restricting access to itemized numbers in Allamakee when counties like Linn have continued to publish zip-code specific data.
Though Linn County itself has well over 20,000 residents, each of its individual zip codes holds a population under the mark. Several hundred positive COVID cases are identified in each of the county’s zip codes—contradicting the state’s invocation of the safe harbor provision.
“So they are picking and choosing. And some of it has to do with political weight,” Ellingson said, adding that the state told him that their newly updated website with statewide COVID statistics should be suitable for his needs—the site does not include zip-code data, however.
“Around the same time, the state came out with their updated website which has significantly more information,” he said. “I think that was kind of the trade-off they were making.”
Iowa’s Department of Public Health did not stop releasing zip code data to all sources, however— law enforcement and EMT services are still getting itemized numbers.
“We get information because we’re a public safety answering point,” said Allamakee Sheriff Clark Mellick. “But we don’t disseminate anything to the public.”
Since his Facebook posts stopped in May, Ellingson said Allamakee County residents have been reaching out to ask where the data is.
“I’m just very honest with them that Des Moines, and I always use Des Moines and they know it’s state government, has clamped down on information,” he said.
by Isabella Murray
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