Emergency management clarifies COVID-19 case reporting

  • The Hopkins County emergency operations center
    The Hopkins County emergency operations center

County does not have gender, age, location of four confirmed cases, officials say


Hopkins County emergency management, along with CHRISTUS hospital officials and EMT officials clarified how citizens are seeing cases of COVID-19 being reported at a press conference on Wednesday. 

According to CHRISTUS Mother Frances Sulphur Springs emergency medicine director Dr. Martin Fielder, citizens have reached out to emergency management for more information about where the four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hopkins County are located-- but this is information the hospital, hospital district, EMS and emergency management do not have. 

“Until we get better surveillance at a local level, we’re going to hold to what we’re doing,” said EMS director Brent Smith. Smith said any release of data such as zip code, gender or age of a COVID-19 patient would be communicated through public health authorities, not the hospital, EMS and emergency management. 

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) website, the county local health authority is a licensed physician who administers state and local laws relating to public health within a local government’s jurisdiction. Duties include aiding the state with quarantine, sanitation enforcement, public health law enforcement, reportable diseases and vital statistics collection. 

Last week on March 28, the county reaffirmed Dr. Ichabod Balkcom’s role as the county’s local health authority, but the county has no operating public health department. 

Balkcom has served Hopkins County in that role for several years, but on March 27, county officials discovered a paperwork error that allowed his appointment to expire in September 2019. Once they were made aware of the lapse, commissioners took steps to renew the appointment, according to county judge Robert Newsom. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas DSHS is only releasing information to local health authorities and will no longer report to county officials, Balkcom told the News-Telegram on March 28. 

EMS director Brent Smith says due to the rural and low-population nature of the county, he fears that even if the county were able to release demographic information about those infected with COVID-19, it would lead to disclosure of information that would violate HIPAA. 

“Some of our areas are small enough that we can’t disclose something that could lead to identification. That would go back to a HIPAA violation,” Smith said. “In the social media world, as people put out speculative information that would narrow it down to a small area, that would lead to connecting the dots. That would fall back on us. If you share something on Facebook as a neighbor… you’re not going to get in trouble. But as an entity, we would.” 

SSPD Chief Jason Ricketson says a concern as well is that by releasing information about who is infected-- or where the infected party has been-- it might give citizens a false sense of security.

“Our concern from the get-go is just because it’s in one specific area of the county, we don’t want people to think it’s just isolated in one part of the county,” Ricketson said. “Until the state can do those investigations and see where that person has been, we don’t want to give a false sense of security.” 

Overall, according to Fielder, he believes the response of the hospital, hospital district, EMS and emergency management has been good. 

“I’m very much proud of our community’s response,” said Fielder. “I know there’s outcries of [whether] we should be doing this or that or we should be doing more or we should be doing less… our team has been getting the word out and people have been responding to that.”