Despite public interest, Douglas County, Kansas Health Department decline to release locations of COVID-19 outbreaks

photo by: Kevin Anderson/Journal-World File Photo

The Lawrence-Douglas County health department's home at the Community Health Facility, 200 Maine St., is pictured in this file photo from July 2010.

Updated at 3:44 p.m. Thursday

Information detailing the location of COVID-19 outbreaks both in Douglas County and in the state of Kansas continues to be shielded from the public eye.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in recent days have declined requests from the Journal-World made under the Kansas Open Records Act that would detail where the respective departments had confirmed outbreaks of the respiratory virus.

Both agencies cited an exemption in the law shielding records that, if disclosed, “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The requests asked only for the locations of confirmed outbreaks, not any information about people infected.

“Moreover, KDHE is required to maintain confidentiality of all medical record information abstracted by or reported to the department,” the state department said in its response to the newspaper.

Douglas County used identical language in a separate response. In recent weeks, the county has announced its first two outbreaks of COVID-19, and last week announced it would remain in Phase 3 of the reopening process because of rising cases in the area.

George Diepenbrock, communications officer for the county health department, said an outbreak’s location isn’t divulged unless officials are unable to successfully contact trace every person who may have interacted with a person with a positive COVID-19 case.

“To protect from the identification of individual patients, we do not release sites of outbreaks unless we believe our epidemiologists are not able to identify all potential close contacts, which would be any person who spent more than 10 minutes within 6 feet of the positive case within 48 hours of the person’s onset of symptoms,” he told the Journal-World in an email.

Kristi Zears, director of communications for KDHE, told the Journal-World that the location of COVID-19 outbreaks delves into the arena of personal health information, which is protected by federal law.

“This includes cases at businesses. In instances where Public Health can easily identify those who may be close contacts, there is no reason for Public Health to share this information with the public as those who are at risk have been contacted,” Zears said in an email. “If Public Health cannot identify close contacts of a confirmed case, this is when Public Health informs the media/public as a way to identify those close contacts.”

KDHE last released COVID-19 data Wednesday, which raised Kansas’ total caseload to nearly 13,000 infections since the pandemic began in March. The virus has now claimed the lives of 261 Kansans, KDHE said.

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health had confirmed 105 total cases of COVID-19, 23 of which are active — an increase of four county cases since the county last released data on Monday. Douglas County recently reported 21 new cases of the virus in a two-week span, a much higher rate of increase than the county saw in the early stages of the pandemic.

Nationwide, the United States has confirmed nearly 2.4 million cases of COVID-19, which have claimed the lives of over 122,000 Americans, according to a database compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Correction: A previous version of this story included a typo when noting the number of active and inactive cases in Douglas County. As of Wednesday, there were 82 inactive cases and 23 active cases.


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