HIPAA Wasn't Meant for This

By Susan Estrich

March 19, 2020 5 min read

HIPAA was a great law for its time. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects the privacy of your personal medical records. You don't have to tell anyone about underlying diseases. That's your business, not theirs. For years, it has protected Americans with AIDS and cancer and everything else from discrimination, private or official.

Now it is leaving us vulnerable to COVID-19 carriers who don't tell us their names.

How are you supposed to know if you had any interaction with the guy from the other elevator bank if you don't know who he is?

After he interviewed Rita Wilson, an Australian journalist decided to be tested and was found to be positive. But Wilson and Tom Hanks had publicly disclosed that they have the virus.

They opted in. They went public. They did the right thing.

Right now, HIPAA is making it impossible to know whether you have been in contact with an infected person and, in turn, whether you may be infecting a high-risk loved one. Universal testing would tell you, but we are almost as far from that as we are from a vaccine.

A few celebrities have come out. Otherwise, we know that an American Airlines pilot who was based at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has tested positive. DFW is the airline hub. Without knowing what flights he flew, how do you know if he was the guy who used the toilet right before you? Millions of people flew when he flew out of Dallas.

The way China suppressed the virus outside of Wuhan was by not only enforcing social distancing and mandatory masks and protective gear for everyone but also tracking people's movement. Take a look at this video, filmed for the He Zhimeng YouTube channel last week, of a city that has stopped the virus: https://youtu.be/YfsdJGj3-jM.

You scan a QR code when you go to McDonald's, when you get on a bus, when you enter a new neighborhood. An app tells you exactly where the closest cases are to you at all times. Your temperature is taken at work, and you record all your movements.

That is how the virus is controlled in China. That is what worked, and what continues to work, and what may have to remain in place until a vaccination can be found.

In Israel, it was disclosed this week that the Shin Beit, the Israeli Security Agency, has for years been collecting cellphone tracking data for use in counterterrorism efforts. It was disclosed because the government sought and received approval to use that data, under close supervision, to track the contacts of those who test positive for the virus, and thus restrict the spread.

What China is doing would never work here. Americans are not used to the kind of surveillance that Israelis are.

But we must do it, our way.

The first lesson of this virus should be that we will never save lives — and there may be millions to save — unless we act for one another. We self-quarantine and wear masks so as not to spread it to others. We are supposed to be tested if we have come in contact with a person who tests positive, particularly if we are high-risk. How do you know if you've had contact with people who tested positive in your building or at your college if you don't know who has tested positive? If you don't know their names? If you aren't told what flights they were on, where they get coffee?

There should be no stigma to testing positive, or to needing help.

But there should be a stigma for those who won't opt in, who refuse to disclose, who would rather keep their suspicions to themselves than confide in those who have a right to know.

I understand the need for privacy. I pray that we will once again have the freedoms we have taken for granted in my lifetime. But we are at war right now. Each of us is a potential victim. Ultimately, as much as we socially isolate, we are also depending on one another.

If you test positive, tell. Opt in if you can. Opt out of HIPAA if you must. There is enough fear and worry out there, and it will ultimately take its own toll. If you hear a name and see a picture and you have never seen that person before, you can at least feel better about going home.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: coyot at Pixabay

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