Tribune editorial: Public safety, privacy must be balanced

Tribune editorial: Public safety, privacy must be balanced

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there needs to be a balance between protecting people’s privacy and giving members of the public enough information to keep them safe.

For the most part, state and local officials seem to be striking that balance.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s office is holding daily press briefings and issuing frequent news releases to keep the public informed. Top health and school officials, along with many other key leaders, take questions. The news briefings are livestreamed on Facebook, with more than 23,000 tuning in live Sunday night to hear the announcement to close schools.

A sign language interpreter has been at every conference. The governor’s office recently started taking text-messaged questions from media who are outside of Bismarck and reporters working from home. All of these are great steps toward keeping the public informed and preventing fear-based rumors from getting out of control.

It also was good to see Mandan Public Schools notify parents that the COVID-19 case involving a girl who is 10 to 19 years old attends Fort Lincoln Elementary School.

That general information is enough to help parents, teachers and the public take the steps needed to stay healthy while also protecting the privacy of that student.

But there are some inconsistencies with the public information that’s released.

For the first cases, public officials announced that they involved travel to the East Coast or travel to Germany. But for subsequent cases, most involving Burleigh and Morton counties, the North Dakota Department of Health has said only domestic or international travel. On Tuesday night, a spokeswoman would not confirm if the domestic travel was a general region like the East Coast or West Coast, citing concerns about privacy.

Even though we live in a small state, it seems unlikely that someone could identify a COVID-19 case with a generic description of which coast the person had visited. But being armed with that information could help you make better decisions about whether you need to self-isolate if you think you had come in contact with someone who had traveled to that general area. 

There also are unanswered questions surrounding a group of 75 Bismarck high school band students and eight chaperones who went to Anaheim, Calif., from March 10-15. Anaheim, in Orange County, was reporting community transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at the time of the trip.

The Tribune has attempted to get answers after hearing from two community members last weekend who said they were concerned for public safety.

Superintendent Jason Hornbacher would not say whether all of the chaperones returned from California, or whether anyone who went on the trip is showing coronavirus symptoms, citing federal privacy laws.

The North Dakota Department of Health also will not answer questions about whether anyone connected to the trip is showing symptoms or has been tested, and will not answer whether Bismarck Public Schools reported the situation to the state.

Bismarck Public Schools has urged the students to self-isolate. But school and state officials will not answer questions about whether families followed those instructions.

To be clear, the Tribune is not asking for students’ names or identifying information. We are seeking answers to general questions to help keep the public informed. The jump on Thursday afternoon to 19 total cases, including 11 cases in Burleigh County, heightens the concern.

We all are trying to make the best decisions we can to protect ourselves and the people around us. To do that, we need the best information possible.

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