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KCSO opts-in, KPD opting out of program that provides names of COVID-19 patients to first responders

The program is meant to protect first responders, but critics worry about that release of private medical information.

The City of Knoxville will not be participating in a state program that allows law-enforcement officers across Tennessee to access a database of persons who have tested positive for COVID-19, but the Knox County Sheriff's Office will accept the information.

Gov. Bill Lee wanted to make the information available to first responders who could be coming in close contact with those patients.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, Director of the Knox County Health Dept., said Monday that local health authorities voiced concerns about making that personal information available because it could discourage some people from getting tested or cooperating with health officials.

On Tuesday, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Police Chief Eve Thomas said KPD would be opting out of that program.

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“The initiative was well-intended, aimed at protecting first responders and the people they serve, and safeguards were put in place to protect confidential information,” Kincannon said. “But there are better ways to accomplish the same goals, and we will continue to take the appropriate steps to assure public safety.”

On Wednesday, KCSO spokesperson Kimberly Glenn said Sheriff Tom Spangler has opted in to the program citing officer safety.

"We will utilize the information for our Corrections facilities. Additionally, Sheriff Spangler has not yet made the decision on how else we will utilize the database. He feels strongly that it is an important tool to keep our frontline folks safe," said Glenn.

Kincannon said the city would work to protect its first responders by providing sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to firefighters, paramedics and police officers.

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“Allowing law enforcement access to the state database was problematic,” Mayor Kincannon said. “Few people have been tested, and many others are asymptomatic carriers, so this could present a false sense of security. More importantly, we don’t want to create any public reluctance to be tested out of fear that confidential information might inadvertently be shared.”

Kincannon said all first responders should wear face coverings when interacting with the public in close proximity, unless doing so prevents them from doing their job effectively, such as when chasing a suspect on foot.

Officials are also working towards having all first responders tested every two weeks until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available. 

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