An EMT ambulance responds to an emergency in Columbia Heights, Minn., in 2015. Credit: Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beatriz Winters did her best to help spread useful information for undocumented immigrants across Minnesota through a private Facebook page. 

There, Winters recalled recently, she met a woman whose husband had landed in the emergency room with a COVID-19 diagnosis. The woman and her husband, Winters said, ran into an unexpected problem during a contact tracing interview and reached out to her for help.

“She calls crying because she’s being told that they will share her information with the police and ICE,” Winters said, referring to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “I was totally taken aback.”

The husband was already scared of being deported because he is undocumented, Winters explained. Now both he and his wife feared that sharing their address with law enforcement would make deportation more likely. 

The situation stemmed from a routine post-infection questionnaire that the Minnesota Department of Health conducts with patients who have tested positive for the virus. That’s when a health department employee will ask questions to trace other people who may be infected. They also offer advice about recovery and limiting the spread of the virus. 

One of the questions the contact tracer asks is whether the patient would be willing to share his or her home address with the health department. The tracer then discloses that this information will be provided to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The Public Safety Department, in turn, will share the addresses with 911 dispatch centers across the state.

It’s part of an executive order from Governor Tim Walz that’s meant to alert emergency responders—fire, ambulance, or police teams—who could turn up to a house where someone has been infected with COVID-19. A dispatcher, using the addresses provided by the COVID-19 patient, can alert the emergency responder, who then knows to wear personal protective equipment before entering the home. 

When Walz signed the executive order in April, he explained the intent was to protect first responders and preserve limited PPE while continuing to provide “critical services” to the population. The state’s three biggest law-enforcement associations strongly backed Walz’s decision. 

But advocates like Winters, who is originally from Honduras and is active with the state DFL, argues that the order has a chilling effect on immigrants who do not want to share their information with law enforcement. Both Winters and Our Stories, Our Health, a public-health advocacy group, have written letters calling for Walz to rescind the executive order for this reason.

A spokesperson with the governor’s office said Walz consulted with the American Civil Liberties Union before developing guidance on the order. 

“The decision was not made lightly and we continue to assess the ongoing need of the executive order,” the spokesperson said. 

One point of controversy is how the order defines “emergency responders.” An online FAQ prepared by the state government explains that the order includes federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE, in its definition of “first responders.”

The FAQ acknowledges the possibility that a federal agency like ICE could make a call to a local dispatcher “as a courtesy” before making an arrest. If dispatchers had information about a COVID-19 infection at a particular address, they would disclose that to ICE. 

“It is important to understand that the agency would already be going to that location,” the FAQ elaborates. “The 911 dispatcher will not send the agency to the address nor will the response change based on knowledge of COVID-19 at an address.”

Immigration advocates call for patient privacy

The state maintains it would share very limited information in such a scenario. But that’s still enough to create fear in the immigrant community, according to Michelle Rivero, director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs for the City of Minneapolis. 

“Hearing that language is really a trigger for people,” Rivero said. 

City government in Minneapolis has not taken an official stance on the issue. But Rivero said she’s been “exploring this subject” and has been in communication with the state health department and community advocates. 

In June, she said, concerns about the order came up in the chat section of a Zoom meeting about immigrant and refugee issues attended by both Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan.

Neither Walz nor Flanagan addressed the matter during the meeting, Rivero said, and she added that she hasn’t heard directly from the governor’s office about it. 

“Ideally, this executive order would be rescinded,” Rivero said. 

In his original signed order, Walz pointed to the state’s current law governing public records. These rules, he said, would protect patients’ privacy and prevent their information from being abused. The health department, he wrote, would share addresses of COVID-19 patients only if they were still deemed contagious; noncontagious patients would be removed from the rolls. The health department, Walz also wrote, will share only addresses and not information like patient names. 

“We must implement safeguards to ensure that no one abuses this data,” Walz wrote in the order. 

Contact tracers are also required by the order to tell COVID-19 positive patients that they can opt out of disclosing their addresses without it impacting their healthcare treatment. The order is also only supposed to apply to COVID-19 patients who are recovering at home and not at the hospital. 

But Hannah Lichtsinn, an internal medicine doctor and pediatrician at the HealthPartners St. Paul Clinic who treats a large number of immigrant patients, said not all patients may understand that giving their address is voluntary. 

“They might think they’ll get in trouble if they don’t do otherwise,” Lichtsinn said. 

The question has created a barrier between the state and some in the immigrant community who don’t want their personal information shared with law-enforcement agencies, Lichtsinn said. The result could mean fewer people getting tested and the state having less control over the spread of the virus, she added. 

As co-chair of the advocacy group Our Stories, Our Health, Lichtsinn recently spearheaded a letter to Walz asking him to rescind the order. The group has yet to hear back from Walz on the matter. 

To protect first responders and preserve PPE, Lichtsinn has another idea.

“It would be just as easy and effective if dispatch asked, ‘OK, does anyone in your house have COVID, yes or no?’ rather than documenting it in a centralized database,” she said. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...