San Diego County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego County has refused to release public data that might shed light on where outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus have happened. When pressed in court, one of the arguments put forth by officials was that location data could identify people and violate their privacy.

But for the past nine months, public health officials have provided local law enforcement with lists showing the home addresses of all individuals who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

Emails obtained by Voice of San Diego give a sense of the rationale and the timeline. In April 2020, Theresa Adams, a sheriff’s commander, said she asked the county’s emergency operations center for permission to distribute home addresses “for the safety of first responders.” She said she got clearance from Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten to give out properties, but not names.

At the time, there were about 800 known cases, and law enforcement officials throughout the region were debating what kind of “enforcement posture” they should take in response to the state of emergency and its quickly changing rules.

Elsewhere in the communications, Adams noted that “it is not a common practice for others to dictate tactics to law enforcement agencies, so this is a [conversation] that each of [you] must have within your own agencies.” Days later, she shared a series of training bulletins with police and military personnel around the county, including the Navy and the FBI, as well as several school districts.

Lt. Ricardo Lopez, a sheriff’s spokesman, told Voice of San Diego that the county distributes the home addresses of known COVID patients to dispatch centers as “a universal precaution” to protect officers.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights clarified that the distribution of home addresses to emergency personnel, without the authorization of individual patients, was permitted, but urged agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to limit the information’s reach. For instance, agencies shouldn’t post the home addresses of patients online, and the information should only be available to emergency responders “on a per-call basis.”

Michael Workman, the county’s communications director, also pointed to state law authorizing the disclosure of home addresses and wrote in an email: “This information sharing is legally authorized, for a specific public safety purpose, and is to a limited group of trained emergency personnel.”

The Sheriff’s Department may not have been telling other police how to do their job at the start of the pandemic. But it did, in its training bulletins, point police agencies to relevant citations should any department decide to step up enforcement of the public health rules.

People who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 are required to comply with the county’s isolation order, whereas those who’ve had close contact with a patient are required to comply with the county’s quarantine order. Both of those orders allow for people to leave the home to receive medical care.

The Sheriff’s Department advised police across the county to try educating people first if they were caught violating any rules. But if that failed, there were misdemeanor offenses in state law that officers could use.

Other public records show that the San Diego Police Department cited 12 people in early April for violations of isolation or quarantine orders, mostly in Balboa Park, where the facilities were closed at the time — although none have been prosecuted. The city attorney’s office had one year to file charges in court and confirmed Wednesday that it’s yet to do that.

The county is still distributing the home addresses of COVID patients. Several police agencies confirmed that they’ve received the information over the last year but said their officers are not surveilling households.

“The reason we were getting this information was not for the purpose of tracking individuals,” said Phil Collum, a Chula Vista police captain. “Quite the contrary.”

First responders often need to go into homes, Collum said, and in the earlier days of the pandemic, the region’s contact tracing efforts were still being built out. “It allowed us to evaluate if we had first responders who’d been exposed to COVID [and] to keep public safety staff safe and other members of the public safe to prevent them from getting infected in turn,” he said.

In other words, the distribution of home addresses was intended to stop cops and paramedics from becoming the sources of an outbreak.

Not everyone was required to wear a mask in the early days of the pandemic, and that included emergency responders. Some agencies, like San Diego, found the county’s list of known home addresses useful at the time because it allowed officers to ration their supplies.

“We wanted to put the information out so the officers, if they got a call to the address, they knew to wear personal protective equipment,” said Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesman.

Over the summer, Voice of San Diego sued the county for failing to give up the epidemiological reports it sends to the state to help track the spread of the virus. In court, the county argued not just on privacy grounds. Officials contend that the release of more detailed location data would make business owners and managers less likely to report cases within their establishments, even though they’re mandated to do so. Officials also warned that the region’s contact tracing efforts would fall apart.

Collectively, the media outlets that took part in the lawsuit argued that outbreak data would help strengthen rather than weaken contact tracing efforts. They also argued that governments aren’t allowed to keep public records private for fear that, if released, someone might break the law in the future.

The San Diego Superior Court ruled in the county’s favor and the state Court of Appeal declined to hear the case. The media outlets are expected to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Takeuchi doesn’t see a contradiction with the county’s withholding of outbreak data, on the one hand, and the sharing of home addresses with law enforcement, on the other. The information remains private in both cases, even though dispatch centers have access to it.

“We would never publicize it,” he said.

Lopez, the sheriff’s spokesman, also noted that the home addresses are included in the county’s dispatch system with an expiration date, so the information disappears past a certain point.

There have been several high-profile examples of businesses being identified as COVID hot spots, but typically officials keep their descriptions of where the virus has been discovered vague. KPBS got its hands on outbreak data and published a map and a series of stories late last year showing that group living facilities, including nursing homes, were among the most common sites. But because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, tracing its whereabouts through the traditional contact tracing process isn’t necessarily practical.

Considering how widespread the virus has become and the change in tactics — police now assume that anyone they come into contact with might be exposed — the larger question is whether the distribution of home addresses, a piece of the overall picture, is still useful. Most, but not all, the police departments surveyed for this story ruled out the possibility that surveilling people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 is something they would even consider.

Lt. Kevin Toth, a spokesman for the Escondido Police Department, said his city didn’t have the necessary staffing. When asked to clarify, he responded in an email: “Given the number of cases, it’s kind of a moot point. That being said, there is no other scenario where the police monitor anyone 24/7 in their home so I imagine it would have to be a pretty extreme set of circumstances to justify that.”

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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