Emergency Management director says Health Department tight-lipped

Robert Smith rsmith@pawhuskajournalcapital.com

Osage County’s emergency management director voiced frustration Monday with what he described as the state Department of Health’s apparent unwillingness to share information for use by first-responders that might make a difference in their ability to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Emergency Management Director Jerry Roberts said Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration seemed to have indicated that concerns about potential violations of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) were secondary in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, but the Health Department seemed determined not to share information that might benefit first-responders.

Roberts said there are 51 fire departments in Osage County, about 40 of which handle medical calls, and he gets contacts from those departments about whether he has information that he can share with them regarding areas where they might encounter COVID-19.

“That’s been one of the most aggravating things of this whole deal,” Roberts said, regarding the inability to obtain information for use by first-responders about locations where COVID-19 patients might be, and where deaths have occurred. “It’s a big secret.”

Through Monday, April 13, Osage County had 56 positive tests for coronavirus infection and seven deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Statewide, there had been 2,069 positive tests and 99 deaths reported as of Monday morning. Nationally, there had been more than 580,000 coronavirus cases reported in the U.S. as of Monday, and more than 23,000 deaths.

Roberts cited the Skiatook fire and emergency medical services as being among the first-responders receiving insufficient information from the Health Department.

Skiatook Fire Chief Jim Annas explained to the Journal-Capital that he had no desire to argue with either Roberts or the Health Department, but he did agree to briefly describe the flow of information his agency has received regarding its possible contacts with COVID-19 patients.

Annas said the Health Department had notified Skiatook about one occasion on which its emergency medical service may have transported a COVID-19 patient. On another occasion, Skiatook learned from a hospital that it may have transported a COVID-19 patient, and other sources that Annas was not at liberty to identify notified Skiatook about two other instances in which its EMS may have transported COVID-19 patients.

Annas explained that many of the men in his 21-member department have wives and children — either young children or adult children — and they are understandably concerned about not passing along the novel corornavirus to their loved ones if they happen to come into contact with it in the line of duty. Annas said Skiatook has spent some $15,000 to $16,000 to create temporary quarters for its fire and emergency medical personnel — both quarters for work purposes and for isolation purposes. As of early Monday afternoon, he said none of his employees was in isolation and none had tested positive for COVID-19.

While taking steps such as providing an isolation area at work for anyone who needs it, Annas said he is mainly trying to keep things as routine as he can.

“I’m trying to maintain everything as normal as possible, because this is a marathon and not a sprint,” he said of the COVID-19 pandemic. Annas also said the availability of information from the health department seems to have evolved some over time, with some information being available now that was previously not available.

The Journal-Capital contacted the state Health Department’s communications office Monday and explained that it was seeking a response to the issue that Roberts had raised. The department had not replied prior to deadline for this edition.