We share the community's disappointment and concern over Lyon County Public Health's decision to release so few details about the two individuals who recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Such a lack of context creates confusion and adds anxiety to an already stressful time. While we understand that county officials cannot release names or other identifying information because of federal health privacy laws, we also know that some provisions of HIPPA (the federal privacy law) have been relaxed and that it is not uncommon for health departments to release the ages and genders of patients and where they had traveled, if the cases appear to be travel related. Such information is specific enough to help the public better understand the risk to their communities while being vague enough to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
We especially are concerned with Lyon County Health Officer's Renee Hively's response, as quoted by the Emporia Gazette, that it wasn't important for the public to know where the individuals had traveled. It does matter to us, Nurse Hively, because some of us may have traveled to the same place.
Was it a cruise ship? Italy? Iran? Florida? We understand that public health officials walk a fine line between maintaining the confidentiality of patients (which is a moral obligation that transcends federal laws) to their duty to protect the public health. We urge county officials to examine whether they are maintaining that proper balance.
Public anxiety was further increased Monday by conflicting messages from Gov. Laura Kelly, who said a shelter-in-place order was ready for Lyon County, and county officials, who said the announcement was premature. The officials said, somewhat defensively, they were still considering the options that were best for Lyon County.
Because of the lack of information from County Health on the two Covid-19 patients, and the mixed signals on the shelter-in-place order, many of us were left wondering: What is going on in Lyon County that we should know?
Only a handful of counties in Kansas have stay-at-home orders, and Lyon County has only just had two confirmed cases. Are there special circumstances about our public health situation? To be clear, there is no evidence that's the case. But it's a reasonable question and requires an honest answer.
From the start, we've been concerned that our public health officials, both in the community and here at the university, have not taken the novel coronavirus threat seriously enough. We remember when we were told not too long ago that we should just take the same precautions as we would with seasonal flu. Now that COVID-19 has closed campus and emptied the dorms, forced our classes online, and is busy wrecking the U.S. economy, that advice seems worse than naive. Our spring semester and graduation were taken from us, and we don't know when anything will return to normal.
What we need from our community leaders is frank talk and decisive action. Were the two confirmed cases connected in any way to Emporia State? And if things are serious enough in the county for a shelter-in-place order to be seriously considered, why did we hear it first from the governor and not one of our community leaders? We deserve better.