County Officials Balance Privacy, Transparency With COVID-19 Information

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TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) – Colleges and universities are announcing their plans for students to return to campus in the fall. That includes plans to monitor and test students for COVID-19. How much the public will know about who is tested and the results is determined by each county health department.

Frank Kruppa, director of the Tompkins County’s Health Department, said patient privacy is important to county officials when it comes to sharing information about the spread of COVID-19. Especially demographic details like age, gender, race or ethnicity and geographic spread.

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio

Frank Kruppa, Director, Tompkins County Health Department (r)(Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio)

“What we want to avoid is providing data in a manner that would cause people to jump to potentially false conclusions about the disease or about any individual in our community,” Kruppa said.

Kruppa’s concern about false assumptions is based on recent experience. Cornell University*, which is in Tompkins County, has 2,900 students and faculty from China. The school sent out a release early in the pandemic to call out racism against Asian and Asian-Americans on campus after reports that some people had been verbally harassed and assaulted.

Yvonne Johnston, an epidemiologist at Binghamton University, agreed with the importance of protecting privacy. However, she also said there are valid reasons to share demographic details with the public.

“You make personal decisions best when you’re informed,” Johnston said. “So, for someone to be able to say to their provider that doesn’t want to do the testing – ‘Look, I realize that I’m only 20 years old, but the prevalence in my age group is this and I’d really like to be tested.’”

The Tompkins County Health Department hasn’t shared any demographic information since May. Kruppa has said for now he doesn’t plan to update the information.

*Full Disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter