Disclosure That EMT Has Virus Pits Privacy Against Public Right to Know
By Bob Hennelly
March 13, 2020
RIGHT TO KNOW WHAT?: In a public-health crisis, experts say officials need to balance the right of the public to know with respect for the privacy and patient rights of civil servants.
News that three Transportation Security Administration employees and a member of the city’s Emergency Medical Service have the coronavirus means managers must balance workers’ privacy rights with the importance of transparency during an evolving public health crisis, experts say.
“Certainly, the public has the right to know if a member of the FDNY EMS has contracted the virus and that they are being treated,” said Dr. Harriet Fraad, a family therapist who has treated public employees. “But they don’t have the right to know who he/she is so they can be vilified or the subject of personal gossip.”
A Challenging Balance
George Arzt, a public-relations and crisis-management expert who served as Mayor Koch’s Press Secretary, said “it’s a challenge to maintain the delicate balance of trying to prevent public panic while also being transparent.”
“During the Koch administration we found out that a test had shown there was a high concentration of lead in a city reservoir in Pennsylvania and we all gathered and discussed it and felt we had to tell the public,” Mr. Arzt recalled. “We did the Blue Room press conference and we panicked the public and you couldn’t find bottled water anywhere. As it turned out, the test was read wrong and we were embarrassed.”
At Mayor de Blasio’s March 10 briefing, he followed up on his disclosure the day before that an EMT had tested positive for the coronavirus, providing the EMT’s gender and his relationship status by noting that he had not gotten the virus via an occupational exposure.
Got It From Girlfriend
“The information we have at this moment is that that was passed along by a flight attendant who is this individual’s girlfriend who had been traveling to an affected area. As a result of this diagnosis, five fellow EMT are in self-quarantine. They are all asymptomatic.”
The Mayor continued, “The EMT in the timespan that’s pertinent here treated 11 patients, but when treating these patients wore protective gear. The Department of Health and the FDNY will be reaching these patients today to follow up and do the normal diagnostic work. But the good news is they are identified, and the other good news is that the EMT wore protective gear.”
Multiple press reports stated that the EMT had been working in Brooklyn and lives in Staten Island.
A reporter asked whether the girlfriend had also tested positive, whether they lived together in Staten Island and what country she had returned from.
Mr. de Blasio replied, “I didn’t say Staten Island, so I want to make sure we’re all being very careful about our facts. The profile I gave her, the EMT, did not include where he works or lives.”
He then asked city Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot to confirm if there was “a Staten Island nexus,” which she did.
Union: Mayor Crossed Line
Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37’s Local 2507, which represents the EMT, asserted the city crossed the line between the public’s right to know and the privacy rights of the employee.
“I think it is inappropriate for anyone, the department or the Mayor, to release this kind of information,” he said in a phone interview. “Our members deserve privacy just as anybody else.”
DC 37 Local 3621 President Vincent Variale, who represents EMS officers, agreed.
“While I want to get the information out to educate the public about coronavirus, or any other pressing public-health concern, we need to be mindful of the personal privacy rights and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPA) law,” said Mr. Variale. “When we publicly discuss the prognosis of any member of the civil service, we have to remain mindful they are also individuals who as patients must enjoy the same rights and protections as everybody else.
FDNY EMS Local 2507