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Balancing Public Interest and Privacy in a Pandemic

March 27, 2020 - Ron Kruzeniski, Information and Privacy Commissioner

As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes more real in our province, the expectation of citizens and in fact, their need for public information grow. The public needs information in order to make decisions on how to best protect themselves and their families. In addition, as the pandemic grows there are more patients and their right to privacy is a concern to them and their families. Individual privacy – the right to have a degree of control of how one’s information is collected, used, and/or disclosed – is important. Some patients will self-declare and head to Facebook or do radio and TV interviews. Others will choose not to do that and will choose to self-isolate and not tell others, possibly even some of their family members. There can be consequences that an individual can face if their personal information or personal health information is disclosed. Therefore, protecting an individuals’ right to privacy is important. Decision-makers are faced with how much information they can give to the public. It is truly a balancing act. Sometimes it must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The issue is “when does releasing information get to the point that a patient can be identified.”

The Regina Leader Post has developed an article on this issue. It can be found here: Privacy during a pandemic: Sask. gov’t being cautious with listing locations of COVID-19 cases

I believe the article takes a balanced approach to this issue.

Many people may have the virus and not even know it so personal distancing and washing hands becomes even more important. For those that do get tested, the public health system will investigate and contact those that may have come into contact with that individual as they are identified. When it is unknown, we have seen cases where the public health officials turn to the media, for example in the case that an individual tested positive on an airplane flight. We’ve seen cases where the flight information and seat numbers are released publicly so those that were on that flight can contact officials. This all is done on a need-to-know basis and different methods are utilized depending on the circumstances.

Through this pandemic, my hope is that we can appropriately balance the need for public information and the protection of patient privacy.

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