Q: Since we don’t have a county health department, I am getting my statistics from the county health authority and its information comes from the Texas Department of State Health services, but the official I get the information from is a bit unclear on exactly what can be released. Can you point me where to find exactly what can be released?
A: Yes. Please read this page of information on the topic posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
Under the heading “Disclosures to the Media or Others Not Involved in the Care of the Patient/Notification” you will find that disclosure to the public or media of specific information about treatment of an identifiable patient, such as specific tests, test results or details of a patient’s illness, may not be done without the patient’s written authorization or the written authorization of a personal representative who is a person legally authorized to make health care decisions for the patient.
Also make sure to read the paragraph titled “Minimum Necessary” and in particular, this sentence: “For example, a covered entity may rely on representations from the CDC that the protected health information requested by the CDC about all patients exposed to or suspected or confirmed to have Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is the minimum necessary for the public health purpose.”
We can surmise that the CDC is likely following its own “minimum necessary” level of detail in data posted at cdc.gov and the Texas Department of State Health Services is following suit by posting:
Total tests, number of public labs, number of private labs, cases reported, fatalities and estimated number of patients recovered.
Also, fatalities by county, trends, case demographics, fatality demographics, overall Texas hospital data (available hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators), Trauma Service Area hospital data, cases over time by county, fatalities over time by county and cumulative tests by county.
Q: Our hospital district administrator says our county population is not high enough, pursuant to the HIPAA law, to require him to release coronavirus case statistics to the newspaper. Is there anything to that?
A: With active federal and state emergencies and executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic in place, public interest in and the importance of hyperlocal statistical information is broad and deep. It is fair for you to request local health statistics, and you should receive them.
Now, to get at your question, while the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and its restrictions on the release of patient information continue to remain in effect, the act has no prohibition on the release of statistical information and no brackets that set levels of compliance based on population.
Covered entities must be careful not to release information that would identify an individual patient. While many covered entities in Texas freely release statistics, others are so tight with the information that they don’t release any. A newspaper may be faced with relying mainly on federal Cases, Data and Surveillance at CDC.gov and the COVID-19 Dashboard at DSHS.texas.gov.
Q: Does each local entity set its own rules for placing items on an agenda, or is there a state standard? From what I can tell, each locality has discretion.
A: You’re on target. For the particulars, this text comes from the Office of the Texas Attorney General’s 2020 Texas Open Meetings Handbook:
D. Other Procedures
1. In General
Governmental bodies should consult their governing statutes for procedures applicable to their meetings. Home-rule cities should also consult their charter provisions.
Governmental bodies may draw on a treatise such as Robert’s Rules of Order to assist them in conducting their meetings, as long as the provisions they adopt are consistent with the Texas Constitution, statutes and common law.
A governmental body subject to the Act may not conduct its meetings according to procedures inconsistent with the Act.
2. Preparing the Agenda
An agenda is “[a] list of things to be done, as items to be considered at a meeting.”
The terms “agenda” and “notice” are often used interchangeably in discussing the Act because of the practice of posting the agenda as the notice of a meeting or as an appendix to the notice.
Some governmental entities are subject to statutes that expressly address agenda preparation.
Other entities may adopt their own procedures for preparing the agenda of a meeting.
Officers and employees of the governmental body must avoid deliberations subject to the Act while preparing the agenda.