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To date, 15 members of the Harvard community have tested positive or presumptive positive for COVID-19. The University stopped emailing the community at large after two. And as that number ticks upward — six when we made our meeting agenda midday Sunday, 14 by the time we met over Zoom that night — it will be natural for students and other Harvard affiliates to wonder what degree of contact they may have had with these individuals.
Are they undergraduates? My entryway-mates? Were they at that end-of-days darty I attended? And will I, as a result, spread the virus to my grandmother now that I’m home?
The degree to which public health efforts must override standard protections of patient anonymity has come into question in the past weeks — not least at the federal level. United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II has waived some federal patient protections, including requirements to obtain patient permission to speak with family or friends involved in care, the patient's right to request privacy restrictions, and the patient's right to request confidential communication. Federal officials are reported to be meeting with tech companies to discuss possible ways to use data to track citizens.
Along these lines, we sympathize with our peers who wish for more and more helpful information. These are anxious times — driving many, not least some members of our board — to hide away from their loved ones for weeks.
Still, we support the University’s decision to maintain the anonymity of those community members who tested positive for COVID-19. As University President Lawrence S. Bacow put it when he announced the first confirmed case, “Ensuring the anonymity of these individuals is paramount. If you are aware of their identities, please respect their privacy so that they can focus completely on their health. The last thing they need—or any of us would want for them—is public attention and scrutiny.”
Harvard has a legal and moral responsibility to protect these patients’ privacy. To release further identifying information — such as if these individuals are staff, students, or faculty, or in what House they live — would ultimately compromise this privacy.
At Harvard, moreover, such action wouldn’t do much to protect anybody. Preliminary studies demonstrate that a significant portion of individuals with COVID-19 — 17.9 percent — are asymptomatic. Furthermore, the bar for qualifying for COVID-19 testing in the United States is high; at a time when there are not enough tests to meet demand, only individuals expressing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, are likely to be tested.
As such, it is almost certain that the number of coronavirus cases within the Harvard community expands beyond the 15 reported. Knowing more about the individuals in our community who tested positive would only provide a sliver of data. And what data might be provided — House, event attendance, affiliation — would serve as a poor basis for individual action.
To release more information about the whereabouts or identities of the people behind Harvard’s coronavirus cases would, at best, force the University to uncomfortably negotiate patient privacy protections without concrete public health benefits and, at worst, instill false certainty (or alternatively, excessive panic) in community members without meaningful grounds. After all, campus life is, by nature, high-contact and highly communal. We share bathrooms, shuttles, lecture halls, and dining facilities.
We applaud those in our community and beyond who have chosen to voluntarily make their positive test results more public. However, this choice must remain theirs. Encroaching upon the privacy of our community members with little public health benefit in sight is not a strategy worth championing.
To be sure, this crisis should already be inspiring deep reflection about how we can handle similar situations better in the future. Harvard, in consultation with medical professionals, should evaluate inefficacies in the “contact tracing” method particularly as deployed in dense student populations. But protecting patient privacy should always remain a chief priority.
To the fifteen individuals in our community who have tested positive: We wish you the privacy and care you need to recover in this terrifying global moment.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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