Beaverhead ICT shows courage, leadership

J.P. Plutt
Wednesday, April 8, 2020


We are in a position with the coronavirus pandemic where we are at the mercy of both the virus and our government officials. From President Donald J. Trump, to Governor Steve Bullock, to folks on the local level, decisions are being made that are dramatically impacting our lives and we have to trust that our officials are making the right decisions. Eventually, that trust will be tested as the debate heads to an economy versus public health showdown.

Our decision makers in Beaverhead County form the Incident Command Team (ICT). The three-person group includes Public Health Director Sue Hansen, Disaster & Emergency Services Coordinator Tom Wagenknecht, and DES Deputy Coordinator Sadie Caltrider. Last week, the group had an extremely difficult call to make on a COVID-19 death that occurred at a Beaverhead County facility. The deceased was a Madison County resident.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) has among its many provisions a section dedicated to a patient’s right to privacy regarding their health information. In this litigious society of ours, the healthcare profession has rightfully – after losing many lawsuits – fallen into auto-response mode regarding any media inquiries in matters regarding patients, health, and what happened?

“I’m sorry, we can’t release that information. HIPAA,” is the common refrain.

Couple the HIPAA auto-response with the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force opting to track COVID-19 deaths by the county of residence of the individual and not where they passed away, and the death that occurred at a Beaverhead County facility, it seemed, would forever appear as a Madison County fatality simply because of the address on the person’s drivers license.

The Beaverhead County ICT needed to decide if they should play it safe and give out the minimum data the state released with previous COVID-19 deaths which would imply by ommission that the death occurred in Madison County. Or should they alert the public in Beaverhead County that death happened in our home area? It was an apparent HIPAA versus the public’s right to know dilemma.

The Beaverhead County ICT met with legal counsel and after examining the multiple sides of the question, opted to let people in Beaverhead County know that coronavirus is here, a patient died of complications from the virus in our county, and if you haven’t been taking this thing seriously, now is the time to wake up – not only for your own protection but for the well being of those around you.

Thank you Sue, Tom and Sadie. You have earned our trust.

We can only hope that the news of the death from COVID-19 in Beaverhead County, and Friday’s news release of Beaverhead County’s first positive COVID-19 test, will have a sobering effect on those within our community that have not taken seriously the threat of the pandemic. The steps are simple – shelter in place, wash your hands, properly cover when you cough or sneeze, practice social distancing and do not gather in large groups.

Make the decision to think of others in our community. You may be young and healthy and even if you contract the virus, you will likely survive, unaware that you even had the darn thing. But irresponsibly spreading the virus could result in fatal consequences.