Q&A with Department of Health
April 5, 2020
The Eastern New Mexico News Publisher David Stevens on Wednesday asked New Mexico health officials a series of questions about preventing community spread of COVID-19 and transparency in reporting information.
Here are those questions, followed by the response from David Morgan, media and social media manager for the New Mexico Department of Health.
1) I know you said HIPAA prevents release of patient information. But Texas is releasing information about locations where those with positive tests have been. Why can’t New Mexico do the same? Who has made that decision?
2) As of Wednesday night, Curry County had 5 positive tests. Can you tell us for each: age, male/female, what city they live in, whether they are hospitalized, the most likely place where they were infected?
3) If a patient is told to quarantine at home, are they on the honor system? Or how does the public know that a positive-test patient isn’t buying groceries somewhere or continuing to go to work?
4) You’ve said DOH investigates each positive case and communicates with those the patient has been in contact with. Is that still happening or is it too time-consuming with the numbers growing? Can you give more details about the process? Does the patient provide a list of names and locations? Does DOH then contact everyone? How does DOH make contact — phone call? And how long does it take to notify everyone on a patient’s list?
5) If this information is not going to be provided, can you explain the reasoning for that decision and who made the decision?
“We are not Texas. We have a fraction of their population, and that makes a huge difference with regards to protecting patient privacy, and protecting and honoring their right to privacy is paramount.
“Protecting privacy in our urban areas is a challenge at best, but when you get outside the few metropolitan areas of our state, there is greater risk of patient privacy being violated.
“Comparing Texas — population 29 million — to our state with a mere two million is to compare apples and oranges.
“Hospitals, facilities, even the patients themselves all have greater latitudes of freedom to reveal information if they wish. The New Mexico Department of Health will not risk compromising the medical and personal information of New Mexicans for any reason. Period.
“As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise daily, we are not readily provided age, sex and hospitalization stats. While we work on a system to consistently provide that, the priority remains focused on getting the information out on confirmed cases to the public.
“Reports of cases in a New Mexico resident’s county should be a red flag that their county and the communities within it all are vulnerable to spread of the COVID-19 virus and should help motivate residents to stay home to help slow that spread if not stop it altogether.
“Meanwhile, we continue to be in daily contact with all patients with active cases in required self-isolation. We continue to have personnel assigned to contact investigations and continue to investigate promptly. Some investigations take longer than others depending on the amount of contact people have with the public.
“Patients are not prisoners. Patients demonstrate an understanding of the seriousness of their illness, a comprehension of how they can spread it and a commitment to stay home. Should enforcement of self-isolation of a patient be required, the state would acquire a court order.”