Palm Beach County, Fla., Official Accidentally E-Mails Confidential List of HIV-Positive People to Health Dept. Employees
Palm Beach County, Fla., Health Department statistician John Nolan on Thursday accidentally e-mailed to 800 other health department employees a confidential list of 6,500 people in the county who are living with HIV/AIDS, the Palm Beach Post reports (Daugherty, Palm Beach Post, 2/20). Department officials on Sunday said that Nolan, who specializes in HIV/AIDS data, accidentally attached the list to a "routine" e-mail containing a statistical update on HIV/AIDS cases in the county, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Nolan realized his mistake shortly after sending the e-mail and contacted the department's technology staff, who within an hour shut down the system and purged all e-mail attachments (Abbady, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/21). According to health department spokesperson Tim O'Connor, 10 people already had opened the e-mail, but none of them had saved, printed, forwarded or stored the list, which contained only patients' names, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports. "It doesn't look like it got outside at all," O'Connor said, adding, "We're like 99% sure right now" (LaMendola, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/22). He added that the employees who are known to have opened the e-mail have been interviewed and "reminded of their confidentiality agreements," according to the AP/Local6.com (AP/Local6.com, 2/22).
O'Connor said the county health department will launch a "full and major investigation" headed by health department Director Dr. Jean Malecki, the Post reports (Palm Beach Post, 2/20). In addition, state health officials are launching an investigation into the issue, according to the Post (McLachlin, Palm Beach Post, 2/22). Malecki had asked the state Department of Health's inspector general to independently investigate. "This will be a very, very aggressive internal investigation," Malecki said, adding, "So far we believe this information has not gone beyond the health department. It was an obvious error in a secured technical environment." Malecki said the investigation would be "complete" and ensure that "this will never, ever happen again," according to the Post (Palm Beach Post, 2/20). Although Nolan might face disciplinary action, he likely will not be prosecuted because he "clearly didn't intend to release the list," O'Connor said, according to the Post. Releasing protected medical information is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison under state law (Palm Beach Post, 2/22).
Some HIV/AIDS advocates said that the unintentional release of the list might "hurt the public's trust" in the government and "discourage" people from getting tested for HIV, the AP/Local6.com reports (AP/Local6.com, 2/22). "Although these incidents are uncommon, when they do happen, the damage can be devastating," Jon Givner, director of the HIV project at Lambda Legal, said, adding, "The way the government gets people tested is promising confidentiality. When people hear that those promises aren't guaranteed, they are less likely to seek testing." Tony Plakas, president and CEO of the countywide gay and lesbian advocacy group COMPASS, said that maintaining a list of HIV/AIDS patients is a "necessary evil" to help notify sexual partners (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/22). However, he said that if the list became public, it could have "devastating effects" on the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS in Palm Beach County, according to the Post. "My first reaction is fear and shock," Plakas said, adding, "I wish we could say that the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS has faded and disclosing that someone is affected would be the same as any other communicable disease, but that is not the case" (Palm Beach Post, 2/20).