Can a journalist reveal an individual’s COVID-19 diagnosis or are they in violation of HIPAA laws by doing so?
Healthcare and the diagnosis of a person’s well-being are private information in general, but when it comes to reporting, and doing so in a pandemic, suddenly ‘who has what and where are they?’ becomes a matter of public interest even more so. And with social media providing a platform to announce the news that goes viral faster, there are many outlets to control. Especially if incorrect information is dispersed.
So where do journalists fall within the HIPAA guidelines?
Short answer: they don’t. Journalists are not covered entities under HIPAA and are within their rights to report on an individual’s health information. They do not need written permission or authorization from a patient that they interview. This also means that school districts, state child protective service agencies, law enforcement agencies, media, and employers are not considered private entities. Should they obtain their information via a medical worker, it would be possible that the medical worker violated HIPAA if they did not have permission from the person affected. This does not mean that they are free from being held accountable. For example, the Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that they are held to, which ‘strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair, and thorough.’
With regard to employers, a positive COVID-19 diagnosis within a place of work means that your employer IS allowed to notify you that this has occurred if it is within your area of work. Additionally, an employer can require employees to notify them if they test positive at any point in time while employed. This requirement can also be applied to notifying them should you be in contact with someone who has tested positive.
These allowances are considered to be especially important when it comes to considering the well-being of the general public, or national safety.