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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Minnesota Department of Health reports Wednesday that there are now 17 deaths in the state from COVID-19, and 687 people infected with the virus.

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What we don’t know is who they are and where they live — and there’s a reason for that.

The Minnesota Department of Health credibly reports every day on counties with COVID-19 cases, but not cities. It will not name nursing homes where the virus was found. It will provide the numbers of people, but it won’t say where they live.

Providing that kind of detail about COVID-19 is against the law, according to MDH officials, because of the strict medical privacy law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

It has been the law since 1996. Here’s how the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention describes it:

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a federal law that required the creation of national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge.

There are penalties of up to $50,000 per violation for revealing patient information – and Minnesota law is even stricter.

State officials cannot even reveal summaries of health data that might violate privacy.

Here’s what the legal rule says:

“Summary data,” means data which has been extracted, manipulated, or summarized from private or confidential data, and from which all data elements that could link the data to a specific individual have been removed. “Summary data” includes, but is not limited to, statistical data, case studies, reports of incidents, and research reports. Once it is summarized from private or confidential data, summary data remains summary if the responsible authority maintains any list of numbers or other data which could uniquely identify any individual in the summary data physically separated from the summary data and the responsible authority does not make such list or other data available to persons who gain access to, or possession of the summary data.

It’s a tug of war between patient privacy and public safety. As the virus spreads, do the public have a right to know where it is? Do we need to know if it’s in our neighborhood?

MDH has wide latitude in deciding what information is made public. Most data stops at the county level, and does not include cities or locations like nursing homes.

Here’s a statement from MDH spokesperson Doug Schultz:

As a general practice, MDH only provides the county of residence for specific cases because in many if not most Minnesota counties, providing the city of residence, along with information such as age or approximate illness onset, would be enough information to identify the individual.

And if coronavirus is detected at a nursing home, Schultz says, “there is generally not a public health reason to make formal notification of cases in a facility to ‘neighbors or people in a town.’ They should assume COVID-19 is in their community, regardless of whether there are cases in a facility.”

Minnesota has begun posting where the virus came from in confirmed case, like a cruise ship, health care facility or community spread. But most other states are similar, providing only bare-minimum county level information.

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Washington makes public some nursing home deaths. New York City breaks it down to neighborhoods. And in Florida, the dashboard includes county residents and non-residents who have it, and might have brought it with them.

But in Singapore, you can get updates down to the neighborhood, even the block where you live.

Despite daily updates, there’s evidence the virus is much more widespread than the numbers show. MDH officials say there’s just not enough testing available to know for sure.

Minnesota health officials say the best defense against the virus right now remains the same: Wash your hands and stay inside.

Here are some of the sources we used for this Reality Check:

Click to access covid-19-data-map.pdf

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