S.C. governor directs officials to release virus cases by ZIP code

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Gov. Henry McMaster has directed South Carolina's health department to begin publicly disclosing confirmed COVID-19 cases by ZIP code, a level of information specificity the agency had previously said was not necessary in efforts to temper the outbreak.

In a tweet, McMaster said the order was effective Friday, noting that he also wanted the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to begin providing "the estimated number of residents who are likely infected and untested" in the same ZIP code.

"Providing this non-identifying information violates no state or federal privacy laws and is in the public's interest," McMaster said. "It is my hope this disclosure will reinforce to South Carolinians the seriousness and dire necessity of staying home to prevent the spread of #covid19."

State health officials did not immediately respond to a message Friday seeking comment on McMaster's directive.

Scrutinized over information releases concerning the spread of the virus, like calls to release infection numbers by ZIP code instead of just by county, state health officials have expressed hesitation at releasing that level of data on known infections, as opposed to the county-level data they say is an industry standard.

In a lengthy interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, state epidemiologist Linda Bell called ZIP code-level releases a "distraction" that could violate patient privacy, saying the release of too much information could lead to the accidental identification of a patient, as she said happened in the pandemic's early days.

Bell said the best way to mollify the outbreak is for all South Carolinians to act as if anyone with whom they come into contact may be infected, rather than merely avoiding "hot spot" areas. She also added her agency would continue to disseminate information in a way she felt would best safeguard the public.

"What would people do differently if we give more granular information, when what is needed is the measures that we have recommended all along, for the community as a whole?" Bell told the AP Wednesday. "And that's when we don't release additional information - when it is of no additional benefit to protect the public health."

Health officials have said they would make more granular case location information available to first responders, announcing the creation of a statewide database of addresses of known positive COVID-19 cases. Acting public health director Nick Davidson told AP the secure tool would only made available to first responders who have argued the information could help protect them, allowing them to check to see if a home to which they're being called has a resident who's tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Most recover from the highly contagious coronavirus, which largely causes mild or moderate symptoms, like fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and be fatal.

South Carolina had reported more than 1,550 COVID-19 cases statewide as of Thursday with at least one case reported in every county for the first time. Five additional deaths were reporting, increasing the total to 31.