Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order Friday compelling the Minnesota Department of Health to share the location of COVID-19 infections with first responders.
The state’s three largest professional law enforcement associations — the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — wrote to Walz and health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on April 3 asking for the data.
“First responders keep Minnesotans and their communities safe and help ensure that critical services continue to be provided — and it is imperative to protect their health and safety,” Walz’s office said.
The law enforcement coalition argued that the information will allow first responders to take precautions at addresses with infections and ration limited protective gear such as face masks and gloves. The move will prevent the spread of the virus among first responders and the public, they said.
“We are very pleased and relieved that the Governor has chosen to share this information with 911 dispatch centers across the state,” said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. “With the extremely scarce supply of personal protective equipment available, our first responders can now better prepare themselves for every call-for-service and use the protective equipment more wisely.”
Under Walz’s order, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will share the addresses of COVID-19 infections that are still contagious with the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which will distribute the data to 911 dispatch centers. Dispatchers will share information with first responders called to one of the addresses.
The order goes into effect immediately and lasts the duration of the state of emergency declared by Walz.
The virus had infected 1,336 Minnesotans as of Friday and killed 57.
“This decision is not taken lightly,” said Walz’s Friday order. “…We must implement safeguards to ensure that no one abuses this data.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota has opposed sharing the data, noting that it won’t prevent infection because the count of positive cases is underrepresented due to a shortage of tests.
“The demand by law enforcement associations … is a serious overreach and a major violation of our constitutional right to privacy,” ACLU-Minnesota legal director Teresa Nelson previously said. “Providing a list to law enforcement that contains a clear undercount of COVID-19 cases would create a false sense of security, likely leading to more cases of coronavirus among our first responders.”
Skoogman noted that first responders already have access to other data protected under Minnesota law as private data.
“We are very aware of the privacy concerns and are extremely sensitive to them,” he said. “We’re also confident that public health leaders and public safety experts have developed a process that helps protect this information — nearly a dozen other states have done this since the COVID-19 crisis began. Minnesota can certainly do it, too.”
Walz’s office said there are “strict prohibitions” against sharing the information improperly.
The order laid out these guidelines, among others, for sharing the data:
• Only the addresses of people who test positive for COVID-19 and who remain contagious will be shared.
• The MDH must alert the DPS when a person is no longer contagious.
• The data “must remain confidential, be encrypted” when shared with the “minimum” number of first responders taking the call.
• The information must not be shared over channels of communication available to the public or “uninvolved parties.” If that cannot be avoided, dispatchers must use “coded language” or other methods to protect the data.
• First responders cannot use the information to refuse or delay a call.
• Anyone who violates state law protecting the data can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor.
Walz’s order said first responders must still take other steps to protect themselves at all calls, including observing distance from others and asking people about symptoms.
The governor’s announcement came after a morning conference call hosted by U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican representing Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, that featured several law enforcement leaders.
The speakers, who included Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj and St. Paul fire Capt. Chris Parsons, president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union, spoke urgently of a shortage of protective gear and the need for the addresses.
“This is a very important issue,” Parsons said, noting that medical calls make up 80% of St. Paul firefighters’ daily workload. “…I fear for the rural areas especially.”