Critics question Sonoma County’s secrecy over workplace outbreaks of COVID-19
Almost every night for the past six months, public health officials have released a new batch of data documenting the unrelenting spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Sonoma County.
The statistics, aggregated in ways intended to prevent anyone from divining the identities of individuals infected with the disease, provide the public with broad categories of information about the 80 new cases now being detected daily, on average, in Sonoma County. They include the age ranges, gender and ethnicity of patients, the percentage who end up in the hospital and the geographical areas in which they reside.
But the county conceals information about a main driver of the continued rise in cases: workplace outbreaks.
Critics say the county’s decision to withhold the locations of infections in the workplace, based on a common interpretation of health privacy rules, gives corporations the power to choose whether and how to inform their workers and customers about potential exposures to the virus.
Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she sees no value in providing public information about the specific locations of outbreaks of the disease, saying that people should be extremely cautious wherever they go.
But the public demand for more details about where the virus has spread is testing the bounds of health officials’ deference to patient privacy. The issue came to the forefront last week at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, which reported an outbreak in one of its departments, fueling calls for the county to tell the public whether the virus has penetrated the places where people work, shop and go for medical care.
“It really seems like the county is protecting these private corporations,” said Steven Batson, an operating room anesthesia technician at Memorial Hospital. “They’re protecting special interests rather than the public — who needs to know. When it comes to hospitals, patients have a right to know if there’s an outbreak at a hospital.”
Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital officials waited roughly three weeks to inform staff after they first discovered COVID-19 was spreading among employees and patients. So far, 21 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak was detected in early August, hospital officials said Saturday. Fewer than five patients are presumed to have been exposed to the disease by staff, according to the hospital.
Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Providence St. Joseph Health, operator of Santa Rosa Memorial, said he understands why the public and hospital employees would want more information sooner, but hospital officials had to weigh their obligations to patient and employee privacy.
“Given the information that we had, and the work we’ve done, I think we’ve followed an appropriate timeline” for providing information, Krilich said.
Krilich said that although the hospital has not yet completely quashed the virus, he believes “we have a handle on it.”
“I really want to help, as best I can, the hospital and its caregivers and the community through a difficult process,” Krilich said. “We know we have a population of caregivers testing positive and a population of patients who have tested positive. We want to reassure the community that we continue to provide safe care.”
Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the union representing about 740 of the hospital’s employees, criticized the hospital’s delay and said he believes there should be ”total transparency“ when it comes to outbreaks. If private companies won’t do it, then health departments must step in.
“The public should have all the information when there are COVID-19 outbreaks,” Roselli said. “People need to play a role in protecting not only themselves but also their family and fellow citizens. That’s why wearing masks is so important.”
Mase said details about outbreaks are “on a need to know basis” — and the health department’s contact tracing teams are the ones who must be told. She views outbreak information as less crucial for the general public because of patient confidentiality concerns and suggested publishing outbreak data might make businesses less forthcoming with public health workers.
“The objective here is to encourage safety and to stop the spread and not to stigmatize or or discourage people from being involved with our health efforts,” Mase said.
County leaders are torn. All five members of the Board of Supervisors expressed a commitment to transparency, but three deferred to county lawyers’ interpretation of the privacy rules while two said the county is not providing enough information.