METRO ATLANTA, Ga. — Fulton County mayors had been asking for more detailed information about the spread of COVID-19 in their cities. Now, it appears they’re getting it.
In an email obtained by Appen Media Group, the Fulton County Department of External Affairs provided all 15 city mayors and their senior staff a document with a running total of confirmed cases in each city. The document, marked “Confidential,” covers the period up to April 7 and shows Atlanta with at least five times the number of confirmed cases than any other city.
So far, the data has not been presented at public meetings in Alpharetta, Roswell, Johns Creek or Milton.
Mayors in some of those cities cited the term “confidential” as part of the reasoning.
“I chose to respect the wishes of the person who sent me the information because that sender is under no legal obligation to continue sending ‘confidential’ documents to me if I won’t respect their wish to keep it out of the public eye,” Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin said.
He went on to say that he found the localized data so inaccurate that it had little value because it couldn’t isolate where the cases originated and whether the patient actually lived in Alpharetta or merely had an Alpharetta ZIP code.
Meanwhile, county health officials reported this week they are intensifying efforts to boost availability of testing.
Dr. David Holland, chief clinical officer for the Fulton County Board of Health, said the agency plans to open a second testing site next week. In addition, CVS has opened a testing site on the Georgia Tech campus, and there are other healthcare operations running drive-thru sites.
“There has been a lot more access to testing,” Holland said, adding that Fulton County also plans to open a testing site in North Fulton sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Local hospitals are beginning to see more patients, but there have been no great capacity shortages, Holland said. The state has prepared extra space for non-critical patients at the Georgia World Congress Center in anticipation of a peak in cases toward the end of April.
Holland said protocols for testing remain in place for Fulton County. Patients seeking the drive-thru service must first notify the County Health Department hotline at 404-613-8150 to arrange an appointment at the testing center.
So far, the county is not disclosing the location of its drive-thru site.
Holland said the staff simply would not be able to handle a large crowd that may form to get tested without an appointment, plus there are issues with patient confidentiality. The turnaround for testing at the site, he said, is about 24 hours.
The FDA has allowed a number of labs to offer testing provided they follow strict guidelines, and sites are popping up throughout Metro Atlanta.
“There are a lot of labs that are repurposing their lab equipment to do COVID testing, and that’s perfectly legitimate,” Holland said. Still, he added, patients should make certain they are visiting a site that is operated in conjunction with a licensed lab.
The issue of disclosing case information, such as the county’s city-by-city breakdown of confirmed coronavirus cases is a little complex, Holland said.
“We’re trying not to provide too granular information because you get into privacy concerns,” he said. “Citywide should be pretty accurate to the extent that the data being entered is accurate. We don’t always have a city of residence where people [live]. We may have their ZIP code.”
Holland added that just having a patient’s residence does little to isolate where that person may have contracted the virus, because they may have been exposed while shopping in another location.
“Someone may live in Alpharetta, but they go grocery shopping in Roswell,” he said. “People move around.”
Value aside, the Georgia Attorney General’s Office has weighed in on disclosure of some medical information related to the current pandemic.
Replying to a request from Appen Media Group, Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo said that medical privacy laws take a backseat to protecting the public.
“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has indicated that protecting the public outweighs protecting privacy of individual patients,” Colangelo wrote. “So, if there is a need to disseminate information to protect other people, that is allowed under HIPAA. Officials should be cautious about providing an infected person’s name or other identifying details. But it is allowed under HIPAA, for example, to say a jail inmate or a government employee or a member of the public who attended a public gathering has tested positive for COVID-19 because that information can protect the health of other people.”
Whether the “confidential” document circulated to cities is of sufficient value to protect the public is of some dispute.
Fulton County’s Office of External Affairs did not reply to requests for comment. Neither did mayors in Roswell or Johns Creek.
Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said he found the information in the document suspect.
“The report…was not prepared by the City of Milton,” Lockwood said. “Rather, it comes from Fulton County. It is identified as confidential. Given both of these facts, plus the fact that we all receive hundreds of conflicting reports from many sources, the City of Milton does not feel that it is our role to share confidential information gathered and collected from another source, in this case another government – Fulton County – particularly if city officials haven’t been able to independently verify its accuracy.”
Lockwood said the city is working nonstop to ensure the safety of its residents, updating information and adding resources to lessen the burden the pandemic has imposed.
“If this information provided had indicated something that would affect our citizens immediate safety, then it would have warranted more research and confirmation, in which case we could then direct and communicate it with our citizens,” he said.