Gov. Tim Walz made the right call with his decision to let first responders in Minnesota use COVID-19 data to help protect themselves and the public from the virus’s spread.
On Friday, in the latest round of virus-related moves, Walz issued an executive order that directs the state Health Department to give law enforcement agencies the addresses of those who have been infected.
First responders can use the information to better protect themselves and others during the pandemic. At the same time, they should handle the data carefully.
Earlier this month, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, Chiefs of Police Association and the Police and Peace Officers Association wrote to Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Representing more than 300 police chiefs, 87 county sheriffs and about 10,400 officers, they asked the department to notify first responders of a positive COVID-19 test and the address for the infected person.
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the police chiefs association, told an editorial writer that officers are accustomed to handling sensitive information and will not use it inappropriately. The addresses of people who are still contagious — but not their names — will be given to dispatchers who will only relay the information to officers when they get calls to that address.
Skoogman said his organization surveyed Minnesota police and sheriffs last week. Of the 229 responses, agencies reported that about 15% had officers who had self-quarantined with COVID-19 symptoms. Exact numbers for first responders, including actual infections, were not available. But the St. Paul Police Department has said that two of its officers have been infected.
“We haven’t had the [infection] information or enough protective equipment — and we don’t get priority COVID testing,” Skoogman said. “Now having that information will put us in a better position to protect the public if we’re exposed and to protect ourselves.’’
Skoogman noted that about a dozen states, including Wisconsin, are already sharing COVID-19 infection information with first responders.
Understandably, privacy concerns have been raised. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, for example, opposed the plan. A spokesperson called the law enforcement request “serious overreach and a major violation of our constitutional right to privacy.”
Walz and the Health Department faced a difficult decision while trying to balance the state’s strong privacy protections with the challenge first responders face. But the highly contagious coronavirus has created extraordinary conditions that justify the transparency. Following some public pressure, the state recently started identifying long-term care facilities in which COVID-19 cases had been identified.
Making information available to first responders falls in that same category of serving the public good. Privacy remains an important, legally supported value. However, during a pandemic those public health measures that can help slow the spread and save lives take priority.