Hidalgo County cites HIPAA for being light on case details

PHARR — Hidalgo County officials are still not revealing many details regarding an assisted living facility here that informed residents and their families nearly a week ago of a resident testing positive for COVID-19.

On Friday, April 10, Sunshine Retirement Living informed that a resident at The Gardens at Brookridge Assisted Living in Pharr was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized.

The resident, according to the letter, was “only in the community for 6 days and isolated during this time,” from April 1 to 6. The letter further indicated that the resident was recently hospitalized for observation purposes.

Calls made to both The Gardens at Brookridge and Sunshine Retirement Living have since April 10 gone unanswered as of press time.

Meanwhile, county spokesman Carlos Sanchez said even so much as confirming that a coronavirus patient resides at the facility is something the county is barred from doing for legal reasons. He also said he is not privy to that information.

“I can’t confirm whether anybody is from any assisted living facility,” Sanchez said. “I’m happy to try to help, but I’m very limited in my knowledge because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).”

The federal HIPAA law protects patients’ sensitive health information from being released without their consent.

The county has also cited HIPAA for the sparse release of information regarding individuals infected with COVID-19. In news releases, the county will announce the gender of the individual, the city in which they reside, and their age range.

But in some cases, the individual’s city is not presented. Sanchez explained that there are 22 incorporated areas of Hidalgo County, and some of these individuals come from communities with much smaller populations. The instances in which such information is not released represent efforts to protect their privacy, he said.

In contrast, Cameron County has routinely released the genders, cities and ages of the individuals infected in their news releases. The county has also released information regarding patients and workers becoming infected at assisted living facilities Veranda Rehabilitation & Healthcare and Windsor Atrium in Harlingen, helping residents understand that a large portion of confirmed cases in Cameron County is tied to those facilities.

Fifteen Veranda residents have tested positive for the virus, including a 90-year-old woman who died on April 9, and an 81-year-old man whose death was confirmed Monday. There are currently 45 test results pending, and 12 employees and two of their relatives testing positive for the virus.

At Windsor Atrium, nine residents have tested positive, including a 93-year-old woman whose death was confirmed on April 9. Six test results are pending, and three employees have tested positive.

“Our attorneys reviewed the HIPAA laws and were very much more stringent in the ability to release any information,” Sanchez said of the contrasting reporting styles of both counties. “Their attorneys may have interpreted HIPAA in different ways than our attorneys. Our attorneys are interpreting HIPAA in a much more conservative manner.”

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, M.D., responded to Sunshine’s letter, and shared similar sentiments as Sanchez, saying that the city has a mandate in place that follows the national, state and county guidelines that are in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The first thing we always do when we have a contact by the county administrator for the health department is to ensure the public that we’re following the CDC guidelines,” Hernandez said Saturday. “The only limitation we have is because of HIPAA. We can’t release who the patients are or where they live.”

Hernandez said the city has been working well with the county “from day one.” He also said that while the city receives “unconfirmed letters” from the community speculating about patients being isolated, the city must rely on official confirmation from the county.

“We would like to, in a collaborative way, know who they are and where they are,” Hernandez said. “We’re in a mitigation aspect of this disease, so we can help that family — educate them and let them know that number one, you have to self-quarantine to protect you and everyone else, and to help monitor that situation.”

However, while the mayor said he has not received county confirmation on the facility resident in question, the city of Pharr has reached out to The Garden at Brookridge, but did not reveal in what capacity.