The reasons why News 8 Now can’t report on specific information about the coronavirus

Local healthcare systems must follow strict, federal rules that protect patients' information under HIPAA laws

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Many viewers have been asking us here at News 8 Now and our local healthcare systems about why specific information about the coronavirus can’t be released publicly. All of this information follows rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — or HIPAA.

HIPAA is a 115-page document with strict guidelines to ensure privacy for hospital patients, unless they give consent.

When it comes to specific information about COVID-19 in our hospitals, health leaders generally follow one, big rule.

“It’s there to make sure we’re not sharing information with those that don’t have a need to know,” Gundersen Health System privacy officer Becky Kilen said.

That includes disclosing the number of people who are hospitalized at one location.

“We may report that there’s, you know, two people hospitalized in La Crosse County,” Kilen said. “But those are residents of La Crosse County. So we may have more patients that are being transferred from other counties.”

Hospitals must also keep information private for those who recover from the coronavirus.

“We can’t share any information that would potentially identify an individual and notify others of that treatment relationship that individual has with our healthcare providers,” Mayo Clinic Health System privacy officer Leah Mudler said.

HIPAA rules state no names of patients can be released publicly, unless they explicitly agree.

“The fact that they’re being treated by us and that they’re receiving care, that’s their story to tell with whom they choose,” Mudler said.

The number of coronavirus cases in Wisconsin is released daily by county, but not by city or town. That’s because those who are sick in each county are nearly impossible to identify first hand.

“Getting down to ZIP code, you know, especially for our smaller towns…that if you say there’s one or two people in that city, you know and typically it’s a sex and an age, you might be able to identify who that patient is,” Kilen said.

As Mudler puts it, following these rules is all about trust.

“If we don’t allow that patient to have a trusting relationship, and they can’t trust that they’re information won’t be kept confidential, they won’t share information fully with their healthcare provider,” Mudler said.

That could ultimately break the relationship between the patient and their provider.

“And then that starts to impact the ability for us to provide good care to that patient,” Mudler said.

Both Kilen and Mudler say any information about a patient can be made public only if that patient expresses written authorization.