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D.C. Schools Watch for Ebola As Fear Runs Up Against Privacy

Updated on October 16, 2014
Washington, D.C., prepares for Ebola as privacy concerns mount.
Washington, D.C., prepares for Ebola as privacy concerns mount. | Source

The Law v. Ebola

Public schools in the Washington area are now monitoring their students’ health for signs of Ebola in a first hint that disease control could run up against privacy laws.

School officials said any students who show signs of a fever would be asked whether they had traveled in the past three weeks to parts of West Africa where Ebola is ravaging the population.

Only three cases of Ebola are known to have been contracted in the United States. One of the infected persons died, compared with more than 36,000 Americans who died from flu last year.

In each case, the Ebola patients are asked about who they might have contacted since they were infected and the degree of contact. Their homes are then entered by hazmat teams to disinfect them with caustic chemicals. In addition, the names of the patients have been announced in national news.

Under the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), patient records – along with their names – are supposed to be a privacy matter not open to public announcement. In addition, the Fourth Amendment grants privacy rights to U.S. residents’ homes.

Those rights can be overridden by court order in an emergency, such as the risk of epidemic. Nevertheless, lawyers in Texas – where two nurses are now infected with Ebola – and elsewhere are asking how far the fear of Ebola will stretch definitions of privacy.

Deven McGraw, a partner in the Washington-based law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, told the medical journal MedPage Today that public identification of Ebola patients could turn them into a “pariah.”

“If you create a disincentive for people to come in and be tested … so they can be isolated and quarantined, we’ve got a bigger problem on our hands,” she reportedly said.

The Texas hospital that treated Thomas Eric Duncan, who died from Ebola, tried to walk the middle ground on patient privacy.

Texas Health Resources, which owns the hospital, issued a statement saying “no information can be shared about the patient with the general public…”

However, hospital officials acknowledged they could not control announcements of the media and other persons. The statement said “organizations and individuals that are not ‘covered entities’ may not have the same restrictions and may be able to disclose information about an individual who is a patient.”

Comedian Seth Myers summed up how disease concerns can create hysteria recently when he coined the phrase “Fearbola.”

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