Two North Dakota state senators have requested that health officials stop calling residents offering COVID-19 vaccine information.
Sens. Jessica Bell, R-Beulah, and Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, sent a letter Tuesday to state health officer Dr. Nizar Wehbi about the calls and concerning government’s role in “personal health choices,” The Bismarck Tribune reported.
The lawmakers said they had heard from constituents who were called and given information about how to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Poolman said the people she talked to said they had not been vaccinated and wanted to know how state government knew that.
"In order for the Department to initiate these calls, medical records must be accessed without the immediate consent from the citizens of North Dakota," they wrote in their letter.
Bell and Poolman asked Wehbi what confidentiality protections residents had, who was making the calls and what training they hac, the Tribune reported.
"This isn't about vaccines," Bell said. "It's about the proper role of government."
In a letter responding to Bell and Poolman, Wehbi said that since COVID-19 is still "circulating in our communities," people who are not vaccinated are at the highest risk of contracting the disease and that vaccine reminders are not unusual, the Tribune reported.
"Reminder/recall outreach is a well-established, effective tool that has been used to increase immunization coverage rates for years," Wehbi wrote.
According to the state health officer, patient data is stored on a secure database owned by the North Dakota Department of Health and the people making the phone calls were employed by the department. These callers "either have medical or public health experience or have been trained by those with medical or public health experience," Wehbi said.
The Tribune reported that contact tracers, the people making the calls, also received training on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The HIPAA privacy rule establishes national standards to protect individuals' medical records and other personal health information and applies to health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, and healthcare providers that conduct certain healthcare transactions electronically. The rule requires appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information and sets limits and conditions on the uses and disclosures that may be made of such information without patient authorization. The rule also gives patients rights over their health information, including rights to examine and obtain a copy of their health records, and to request corrections, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As of Monday, 1,654 North Dakotans were contacted with a COVID-19 vaccine reminder, Wehbi said. Of those people, he said, 8.3% said they were already vaccinated, 15% said they "were not interested at all" and 8% said they were either planning to be vaccinated or planning to talk to their doctor. He did not say how the other 68.7% of those contacted responded.
North Dakota has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy in the nation, according to HHS. The percentage of the adult population the state considers fully vaccinated has plateaued at less than 50%, according to the Health Department's vaccine dashboard. Kirby Kruger, director of the Health Department's Disease Control Division, has estimated the necessary threshold for herd immunity could be as high as 70% of residents.
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