COVID-19 in New Hanover County - What We Know, What We Don’t

Apr 19, 2020

News coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic usually includes the daily statistics - number of new cases, number of those hospitalized, the number on ventilators, the number of deaths...all listed by state and also nationally. But the New Hanover Regional Medical Center has been reluctant to release that kind of detailed data. Ben Schachtman, Managing Editor of Port City Daily has been covering the story. He spoke with WHQR’s Vince Winkel.

Vince: Ben, in your piece you talked about the release of information or lack of release of information from the medical center as it pertains to COVID-19 cases. Can you give us an update on what's going on there?

Ben: So it's one of the major and most key pieces of data in the fight against COVID-19, and that is the number of COVID-19 cases in any given hospital versus that hospital's capacity. But so far, New Hanover Regional Medical Center has not released, at least not to the public and not to the press, the number of COVID-19 cases. And we've actually been having a very polite disagreement over what the federal and state law says about what can and cannot be released.

Vince: And so what can be released according to the federal laws?

Ben: So the main federal law here that we're talking about is HIPAA, that's the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. And it's the most commonly stated federal law that protects individual medical history. But what HIPAA refers to in almost all cases is an individual's medical history. So citing HIPAA as a reason to not release, say the number of COVID cases doesn't make a lot of sense to us and it's not just Port City Daily it's the North Carolina Press Association that has also weighed in on this and they also said that, the hospital's response here, citing federal law doesn't make sense because what's known as depersonalized information, which is, you know, aggregate data, is never covered under HIPAA.

So for example, if someone goes to the hospital with a gunshot wound, their medical history, you know that's private. So hospitals won't release the name of that gunshot Vic and sometimes, but if we asked how many gunshot victims were there in 2019, and there was a document anywhere in the hospital that would almost definitely be a public document. And there's also some state level statutes, and again, these statutes almost always cover, individual. So the confidentiality of individual people, um, and after sharing the hospitals sort of analysis of the state law, again the North Carolina Press Association said they just couldn't understand where the hospital is coming from.

There's almost all of us refers to not releasing specific information about individual patients and they couldn't understand and neither could we, why the number of patients would be considered to be something that violate any individual person's privacy.

Vince: Right. It's not like anyone is asking for names.

Ben: No, no, certainly not. We would never want to do that. We certainly respect and we admire that the hospital respects personal medical privacy.

The question here is how are they interpreting something as simple as a number, the number of COVID 19 patients as being in any way possibly releasing the name of someone that, that's really what this all comes to we just don't understand it.

Vince: What is the importance of that information?

Ben: So that's a great question. And we don't want this to seem like we're nitpicking over over state statutes. The importance of demographic details are multiple. Even when it comes to just the numbers, just the numbers of COVID 19 patients versus the number of ICU beds, the number of ventilators, those numbers are important because it gives the public a sense of how effective the social distancing and stay at home guidelines have been. And we're actually early in the crisis. I believe according to most public health experts, we haven't seen a peak this month.

We won't probably see a peak next month. So going forward numbers will be important. There are other demographics detailed the hospital can give out that also wouldn't identify anyone individually but would also be useful.

Things like the average age or the age ranges of patients, the races, the gender identities of these people. You know, it's sort of gives you a map of who is being hit hardest by COVID, maybe who's having trouble getting access to healthcare. That's been a major issue in places like New York city. So that kind of nonspecific demographic details will be important. Not just during the crisis, but after the crisis, when we're looking at how it was handled and what we can do better next time.

Vince: Ben Schachtman is Managing Editor of Port City Daily. Ben, thanks.

Ben: Thank you, Vince.

Read Ben's article HERE