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Harvard Law School Clinic Calls for Equity in State Pandemic Response

The Harvard Law School Center for Health Law sent a letter to state health authorities arguing against certain types of patient data collection during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Harvard Law School Center for Health Law sent a letter to state health authorities arguing against certain types of patient data collection during the coronavirus pandemic. By Jonathan G. Yuan
By Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts called on the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to ensure equity and personal privacy in its response to the coronavirus pandemic in a letter late last week.

The letter — sent on April 2 — requests statistics on the demographics of people tested for the virus so that personal protective equipment and ventilators are prioritized for health facilities that demonstrate the most need, rather than major teaching hospitals, according to Professor Robert Greenwald, faculty director of the CHLPI.

“We need access to information — basically data by race and ethnicity — showing which communities and groups are hardest hit by the virus, so we can implement an equitable response and effectively distribute, for example, scarce resources,” he said.

Greenwald said this data could prevent certain minority populations from suffering disproportionately due to a lack of healthcare resources.

“We're starting to see early data that reveals that a disproportionate number of black and Latino people are dying from COVID-19, and we cannot let that happen here in Massachusetts,” Greenwald said.

The letter also asserts that documenting demographic information will ensure equitable access to testing for the virus across population subgroups.

“People across the country have watched in horror as the wealthy and well-connected have accessed testing in places where even our front-line medical workers have been unable to obtain tests,” the letter adds.

The letter raises additional concerns regarding a March 18 order by the Department of Health which mandated that the local boards of health provide first responders with a list of home addresses of people who test positive for coronavirus.

Greenwald said the order would provide first responders with a “false sense of security” since some people may be asymptomatic or lack access to testing, rendering the list ineffective.

“It will not make anyone safer and will likely put first responders at greater risk,” Greenwald said. “Our first responders have to treat everyone as though they potentially have COVID-19 and use universal precautions on all calls.”

The Department of Health has not directly responded to the letter, according to Greenwald.

Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health Monica Bharel, however, issued an order on Wednesday instructing healthcare providers to collect demographic information from confirmed or suspected coronavirus patients and send the data to testing laboratories. Laboratories must then report the demographic data of the positive coronavirus cases to the Department of Public Health. Race and ethnicity data also appeared recently on the department’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

“Robust and accurate data reporting is essential to monitoring and responding to COVID-19 in the Commonwealth, across all communities and populations,” the state order reads.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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