911 panel, health dept. at odds on COVID alert
LISBON–Columbiana County’s 911 advisory committee members took issue with a recent county health department email recommending dispatchers begin using the nationwide police database to determine whether callers have the COVID-19 virus instead of relying on health department information.
In April, county commissioners signed a privacy-protection agreement at the insistence of county Health Commissiner Wes Vins before the department would begin forwarding information about infected county residents to 911 officials. This is so a “health alert” could be added to the 911 system’s address database, which county Commissioner Tim Weigle asked for so first responders — police officers, firefighter and EMTs — would know whether they were dealing with an infected person when responding to a call.
The health alert pops up and advises dispatchers if someone with a pre-existing medical condition lives at an address that is the subject of the 911 call. The alert is then passed on to the first responders, but it does not identify the medical condition.
In his July 27 email to all first responders and the five 911 answering centers, Vins said the “expectation” was the health alerts would be removed within 30 days, and 911 officials failed to do in at least one instance that came to his attention. That is why he is recommending in the future first responders get their information through the Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS).
“With these things in mind, it is in the best interests of our first responders to gain COVID-19 information directly from LEADS,” and Vins said using LEADS would also absolve the 911 system of liability in maintaining the health alerts under HIPPA, the federal law that protects the confidentiality of personal individual health records.
During Thursday’s meeting of the 911 advisory board, some of the police chiefs who sit on the board voiced displeasure with this recommendation, saying getting the information from LEADS adds three-to-five steps to the process and will take more time to access the information when responding to a 911 call.
“Time is not on our side, and the quicker we respond, the better,” said East Palestine Police Chief Jim Brown.
Salem Police J.T. Panezott indicated he will instruct his dispatchers to continue using the 911 database for health alerts instead of LEADs because of the additional time that it adds, and that seemed to be the general consensus.
Deputy 911 Director Brian Rutledge said the mininum information required for a LEADS search is the full name, date of birth and/or Social Security number. He said many 911 calls are from a third party who does not have that information.
Weigle pointed out the memorandum of understanding commissioners signed with Vins said nothing about removing the alert after 30 days, nor was there any such requirement in the order issued by former state health director Dr. Amy Acton, who said the health alert is to be removed once a person with COVID-19 has recovered.
The 911 staff had been placing a 42-day automatic expiration date on the health alerts, but at some point the health department’s epidemiologist called to say it should be after 30 days, so it was changed.
Weigle is aware of two instances where the health alert was not removed after 30 days, but he does not believe that warrants switching to LEADS. A total of 1,669 people in the county have tested positive for COVID-19 to date, 956 of whom were inmates at the federal prison in Elkton. Another 125 were nursing home residents, leaving 585 regular community members.
“If we make a mistake we’ll correct it, but I don’t think one mistake” is reason enough, Weigle said.
While they want to maintain a good working relationship with the health department, he said they would instruct dispatchers to continue to use 911 system for health alerts, which the health department continues to pass along.