Arizona regents assert universities can't lawfully release more coronavirus exposure info

Arizona regents assert universities can't lawfully release more coronavirus exposure info

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

A notice informing the public of preventing COVID-19 is taped on the front doors of McKale Center at the University of Arizona.

PHOENIX — The legal counsel for the Arizona Board of Regents says there is “no factual basis” for the attorney general’s assertion that state universities must release more information about students, faculty and staff who contract COVID-19.

In a sometimes sharply worded letter to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Jennifer Pollock said federal law expressly prohibits the release of personally identifiable health information “except in the most extreme circumstances.”

She noted that Brnovich was aware of, and apparently cited, such laws in his recent formal opinion about universities and COVID-19 disclosure.

“Despite acknowledging this governing law, the opinion makes broad and incorrect conclusions, including that the universities should release information about where employees who have fallen ill worked and where students who have fallen ill lived, took classes or may have visited,” Pollock wrote.

“Even though your opinion is couched and captioned as a legal opinion, you do not rely on any law for this conclusion,” she continued, saying it is instead based on policy views that government should be transparent “and your own judgment regarding what information is medically relevant and useful to the general public.”

Pollock called his failure to seek information from the regents and the universities before issuing his opinion, and making public statements on it, is “disappointing.”

The letter represents the latest dust-up in a contentious relationship between Brnovich and the regents. Two of those disputes have spilled over into court, one about the process the regents use to set tuition and another over the board’s policies for leasing property for private development.

This dispute started with a query from state Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who said some state agencies were not putting out information that might help people who might have had contact with an infected person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his opinion, Brnovich cited laws that he said protect both patient and student privacy. But he also said universities should apply various legal exceptions so that potentially affected students, staff and visitors can monitor their conditions and, if necessary, self-quarantine.

He said that, at a minimum, means disclosing not only the campus attended by an infected student but also any buildings or dorms visited.

Pollock, in her response, said Brnovich claims to be providing advice “consistent with CDC guidelines.

“However, that guidance does not include notification of everyone who may have been on the same campus or in the same building as an ill individual, but instead is based on who may have had close contact with an ill individual,” Pollock said.

She said that means notification should be based on the specific facts of the ill person’s conditions and activities.

She also took issue with Brnovich’s contention that student health records can be disclosed —even including personally identifiable information — to “appropriate parties” if that information is necessary to protect public health or safety.

John Arnold, the Board of Regents’ executive director, said there’s no reason the public needs to know that a resident of a particular dormitory contracted the virus.

“We’re notifying those individuals who are at risk from any exposure,” he said.

Potentially more problematic, Arnold said, is that the dorms are pretty emptied out now.

“We do risk disclosing identifying information,” he said, such that people would be able to figure out who is the affected student. “We tend to balance protecting our students, keeping confidentiality under the law, and public purpose.”

Anyway, Arnold said, university dorms are not areas open to the public.

Ditto, he said, in cases where it turns out that a student who has had classes in a specific classroom building turns out to have COVID-19.

“We look at those on a case-by-case basis and disclose information based on the guidance we’re receiving, and as necessary,” Arnold said.

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