Saint Louis University Journal of Health Law & Policy

Document Type

Student Comment


More than 800,000 Americans have died and more than fifty-seven million sickened since March 2020 from the COVID-19 virus and its highly contagious variants. Public health officials urged the public to mask up, socially distance, and stay home in order to curb the virus’ spread in the early months of the pandemic before a vaccine was approved. Meanwhile, those same officials blocked access to valuable information pinpointing areas of disease concentration—hotspots”—which could have alerted members of the public of locations to avoid. Those officials generally—and usually incorrectly—cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as grounds for information blocking, likely to bypass liability if information released was not properly de-identified under the law. While the secrecy may have caused confusion and distrust among the general public, there is insufficient guidance for health officials to determine which health-related data can and cannot be shared. The Office for Civil Rights, housed under the federal Department of Health and Human Services, sanctions HIPAA offenses, and thus can play a uniquely influential role in access to public health information by issuing guidance for health officials that explains HIPAA’s privacy rules and their limitations.