Opinion: Information key to overcoming the coronavirus
April 5, 2020
We can probably all agree hand washing and social distancing are key to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
But there’s another safety component some officials around the state seem to not understand: Information should be shared, especially information that might help us avoid infection.
New Mexico health officials are telling us daily the number of positive tests by county. Sometimes we’re told approximately how old the patient is and whether they are hospitalized, especially if they die.
That helps keep the topic in the news, but it’s not much practical use to those who are out and about, whether by obligation or by choice.
Authority figures say they have to protect patient privacy. It’s a federal law — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
But nobody is asking for names and home addresses of the 400-plus New Mexico residents who’ve tested positive for the virus as of Friday. It would be helpful to know:
• Where did the patient spend most of their time prior to learning about the positive test? A job in the mall? A ranch near Melrose? City Hall? That might help us know if we should be tested.
• How did the patient most likely contract the virus? Traveling to or from somewhere? A family member who also has tested positive? No idea? That gives us perspective on how this thing is spreading locally.
• How sick is the patient? Mild symptoms that don’t prevent working from home? Bed-ridden with flu-like symptoms but not life-threatening? If we also knew age and general health prior to the positive test, that might help us assess our own risk and whether it’s worth that trip to the convenience store for chips.
The excuses we’ve heard for not revealing that information — from elected officials, the health department, hospital officials around the state and others — is that none of that really matters. All you need to know is stay home and wash your hands.
And in smaller communities, telling everyone that a 32-year-old female works at Dairy DeLight is the same as posting her mug shot on a billboard.
But is patient privacy really more important than the safety of everyone else?
The reason we need as much information as we can get about this awful disease is because we can’t always stay home. Some of us still have jobs. Most of us are trying to keep them. And we have to get food and gas and fill prescriptions and repair the home appliances when they break down.
We can’t just shelter in place and wash our hands all the time.
Officials have assured us they’re contacting anyone they know is at great risk for infection because of close contact with others. Our government also tells us those quarantined at home after a positive test are probably not slipping out to buy laundry soap or dog food.
But some of us prefer to take care of ourselves, and not rely on others. And we need information to do that.
— David Stevens