The Tennessee Health Department is issuing daily reports of names and addresses of Tennesseans with COVID-19 to 911 dispatchers in Williamson County and to agencies across the state.
On Friday the Tennessee Lookout, a new reporting venture launched this week, wrote and story and uploaded an April 9 letter signed by Tennessee Department of Heath Chief of Staff Valerie Nagoshiner and addresses County Sheriffs of Tennessee, and addressing Sheriffs across the state.
“Governor Lee and Health believe that sharing this information with you will enable your officers and employees to protect themselves as individuals in your custody from the community spread of COVID-19, among other benefits to the public health, safety and welfare,” the letter reads.
The Tennessee Lookout reports that so far 32 county sheriff’s offices and 35 police departments across the state have entered into the agreement, and while the letter said that the list will be made available to law enforcement agencies, in Williamson County they are actually made available to the county public safety director.
Williamson County Public Safety Director Bill Jorgensen said in a phone call that the temporary record of those addresses associated with COVID-19 patients will automatically be purged 30 days after they're added. He also laid out the steps of how the directive made its way from the state to the local level.
Jorgensen said that the Tennessee Department of Health sends the information and directives to the state Emergency Communications Board who then send it to local emergency communications districts who finally share the information with the dispatch centers.
It's unclear if people who have taken part in the wide-spread COVID-19 testing provided by the county were aware that their health status, name and address would be shared with emergency communications agencies.
According to Williamson County Emergency Management Agency External Affairs Officer Hannah Bleam, that is a question for the state health department who did not immediately return a request for comment.
"I’m the only one who receives the email and then I forward it to our database specialist who puts it into the CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) system, and it is not seen until a call happens at a specific address,” Jorgensen said. “So we don’t have any printed copies of it floating around or anything like that, and it can’t be accessed until there’s a call at that particular address.”
Jorgenesen said that while the list does have names attached to addresses, dispatchers only see that a listed address has someone tied to the address that has tested positive for the virus, ensuring, he said, that the patient’s identity remains private while allowing first responders to take extra precautions when responding to the scene.
Jorgensen said while 911 centers have kept voluntary information on patients on file in the past, such as preexisting conditions, this type of record is a first for the county.
Williamson County Emergency Communications Operations Manager Kristy Borden said in a phone call that the county’s consolidated 911 system allows for this process to be handled more successfully, as all emergency services with the exception of City of Brentwood Police and Fire and Rescue systems operate under one roof.
“All of the agencies that we dispatch are right there together in the same room and we’re able to turn to each other and make sure that everyone has the same information,” Williamson County Emergency Communications Operations Manager Kristy Borden said in a phone call. “And we know that we’re giving the same information every time because it’s in the CAD system right in front of us, so it [having a consolidated 911 system] does help us to prepare for all kinds of things of that nature.”
Williamson County Sheriff Dusty Rhoades said in a phone call that he never directly received an email on the initiative, while Nolensville Police Chief Roddy Parker said in a phone call that he was informed of the county’s involvement in an April 8 email.
Parker said that as far he knew the decision was made in order to keep first responders safe and informed about the potential exposure to COVID-19 patients when dispatched on an emergency call, and serves no other purpose.
As Brentwood’s 911 services are contained to the city limits, the process, according to Brentwood Police Chief Jeff Hughes, was implemented by Brentwood City Manager Kirk Bednar who was consulted by Brentwood City Attorney Kristen Corn, something Hughes was notified about on April 6.
“It’s all about protecting police officers and first responders going into a situation where someone is positive just so that they can take the extra precautions when responding to a known situation like that,” Hughes said.
Hughes said that the list of names and addresses is sent to Brentwood Emergency Operations Supervisor Kathleen Watkins and that the addresses are made available to dispatchers if a 911 call is placed at a flagged address.
Watkins detailed the program and procedures during an April 27 Emergency Communications District Meeting that was live-streamed. The topic was presented as a resolution authorizing the amendment, and was passed unanimously.
“I receive an email everyday at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon from the state and that email has a spreadsheet on it with a list of all the residents in Williamson County that have the COVID-19. After 30 days they come off of that list and I can attest that they are coming off of there because our list is slowly getting smaller which is a good thing,” Watkins said. “What I do is print it out and leave that list for dispatchers so that if they were to get a call, and their technology department has put a layer on their CAD map so that if they were to get a call at a location, it will identify that house as being one of those members who has the COVID virus.”
Hughes said that like the county, the list is not permanent. Both Hughes and Jorgensen all said that they are not aware if the list has actually been utilized, as it's unclear if any 911 calls have been made to any of those addresses on file which are not made public.
Hughes said that privacy is a real concern and that dispatchers, law enforcement and emergency operations officials take seriously.
"We want to protect that information and make sure that we treat it with the sensitivity that it deserves but at the same time there's a precaution for first responders as well and is the reason that this information was permissible to obtain," Hughes said. "We're going to respond, but it just gives us the knowledge and ability to take extra precautions."
State Rep. Glen Casada, who represents Tennessee's 63rd District, told the Home Page in a written statement that the measure was taken by Gov. Bill Lee as a measure "to protect those who are not infected," and recommended looking at "past court decisions on this matter to validate that what state government is doing is legal."
Head of communications for the Tennessee Department of Health Bill Christian did not immediately respond for comment.
Alexander Willis contributed to this story.