After getting pushback for not releasing more specifics on daily COVID-19 cases, Lewis County began disclosing case count information by zip code on Oct. 1. But it was the first and last day the county did so, immediately backtracking with the same concerns about patient identification, HIPAA violations, and state statute as it previously gave for not releasing more data.
On Thursday, Lewis County Civil Deputy Prosecutor Amber Smith told county commissioners that the Prosecutor’s Office is still recommending against getting more specific than case numbers by commissioner districts.
“I can imagine that is frustrating for all of you and also the public to know that we do have information,” Smith said. “We just can’t disclose as much as we’d like to.”
Critics have pointed out that Thurston County is identifying case numbers by zip code, but Smith and Public Health and Social Services Deputy Director John Abplanalp said the difference is that Lewis County is chopped up into more zip codes with less people. Paired with the county’s low number of daily cases, zip codes could provide enough information for residents to determine exactly who got sick.
Smith laid out a hypothetical situation in which one zip code moves from the “0-32 cases” category to the “33-50 cases” category. If that was the county’s only case reported that day, readers would have that person’s zip code and age range, potentially creating an “indirect identifier,” Smith said.
In Thurston county, zip codes contain far more people, and daily case counts are higher, making it less likely that an individual could be outed by the data.
Basically, “people can do math,” Abplanalp said.
According to Abplanalp, Lewis County residents have already been expressing concern during contact tracing investigations that their information won’t be secure. Public health officials worry that more specific data could deter people from participating in contact tracing altogether.
Plus, a state-wide proclamation issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, which was extended this month, doubles down on protection of personal information in order to encourage those who test positive to engage with public health departments.
The balancing act between protecting privacy, encouraging participation in contact tracing, and providing the public with information is “very very fine,” Smith said.
County Commissioner Gary Stamper suggested lumping together zip codes to create zones with larger populations, which Smith said would be one possibility. Zip codes could also potentially re-enter public data sets if Lewis County began seeing higher case counts. Hopefully, Abplanalp said, that is not the case — as of Thursday, the county already has the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases west of the cascades.