Police across Minnesota are asking state authorities to share with them the location of people infected with COVID-19 to prevent the virus’ spread among first responders and the public.
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 — appealed directly to Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
“Sadly, each day our associations are receiving more reports of peace officers testing positive for the virus, presenting symptoms of COVID-19 or self-quarantining after coming in contact with Minnesotans on routine calls-for-service,” the three groups jointly wrote Malcolm in an April 1 letter. “More troubling perhaps is the fact that law enforcement could have essential healthcare information that would allow them to better prepare for these encounters, limit their exposure to the deadly virus and contain the spread of COVID-19 …”
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the police chiefs association, said that a survey last week of all police and sheriffs’ offices yielded 229 responses.
Of the agencies reporting, 15% had officers who self-quarantined with COVID-19 symptoms. About 10% said that was due to officers coming into contact with someone who tested positive or someone awaiting test results, Skoogman said.
Exact numbers were not available, including actual infections among officers; at least two St. Paul police officers have been infected.
Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz said the agency is working “intensively” with the Department of Public Safety on the matter.
“The situation is not an easy one to resolve, as Minnesota has strong privacy protection laws, but our first responders face the challenge of limited personal protective equipment,” Schultz said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota advocated against sharing the information, noting that the count of infections 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,” said ACLU-Minnesota legal director Teresa Nelson. “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 said the groups have not heard from Malcolm or Gov. Tim Walz, who was copied on the letter.
“We’re collectively concerned about the safety of police officers when they come in contact with citizens and also concerned about officers unknowingly spreading the COVID-19 virus in communities across the state,” Skoogman said.
The groups, representing more than 300 police chiefs, 87 county sheriffs and about 10,400 officers, want the Department of Health to share COVID-19 infection locations so they can take precautions at the addresses and manage the use of protective gear.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have enough personal protective equipment, gloves, masks, etc., to suit up properly for every call,” Skoogman said.
The letter included a copy of an Ohio memo authorizing sharing such information, and highlighted recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.
The federal recommendations said patient privacy protections allowed divulging information about COVID-19 infections for a number of reasons: to prevent spread of the disease, “when first responders may be at risk of infection” and to lessen the threat to public health.
Skoogman said Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida are sharing the information.
The three associations are in ongoing conversations with Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety John Harrington about the issue, Skoogman said.
“[Harrington] has told us that discussions are taking place, but as each day passes, we’re becoming more and more concerned,” he said.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, wrote Malcolm on April 3 supporting the groups’ effort.
Limmer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and the Legislative Commission on Data Practices, said state law allows sharing locations in some circumstances.
Nelson, who said she is sympathetic to the lack of protective gear, urged police to take other steps: treat every call as a potential infection, stop enforcing low-level offenses and release some jail and prison inmates.
“We understand there are [privacy] concerns, however, we’re confident we can work with officials from the health community to create procedures that will protect this data,” Skoogman said.