UK concerns over health department COVID-19 data prompt reporting change


All data from the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department’s daily COVID-19 tracking updates.

Natalie Parks

According to Lexington-Fayette County Health Department spokesperson Kevin Hall, UK officials “expressed concerns over privacy matters” related to the health department’s reporting of COVID-19 cases among UK students.

Prior to Sept. 21, the LFCHD daily update included a section dedicated to UK students. Now, the section includes data from “college/university students” in Fayette County.

Hall said may this include students from UK, Transylvania, BCTC, Sullivan University and Commonwealth Baptist College.

UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said the university was concerned over the discrepancy in specific or general sector reporting.

For example, long-term care facilities such as nursing homes were grouped in one category, as were incarcerated populations. But UK was listed alone prior to the change.

“We pointed out that UK is not the only higher ed institution in Fayette County conducting in-person classes. Transylvania, for example, has a mix of class modalities but still has students living, dining, and attending class on campus,” Blanton said. “The Health Department and its legal counsel were responsive to that concern, as well, which we appreciated.”

According to Hall, the health department and its attorney reviewed privacy law and changed how student cases are reported.

“We thought it was important to include other universities, since we combined all nursing homes and all detention centers, in order to be consistent. It is an effort to be consistent and to abide by various privacy laws, while using best efforts to report as much data as possible,” Hall said.

LFCHD has now reported hospitalizations in the college student population, though the health department did not confirm which college the affected students attended.

UK and the health department were both cautious over reporting hospitalizations, because there are so few cases that an individual might be identified publicly.

Currently, the LFCHD shows “<5” hospitalizations, which were first reported on Sept. 21. Prior to that, there had been no hospitalizations of college students reported in Fayette County.

Hall said the health department chose not to report the specific number so that students would not be easily identifiable, and because hospitalizations are less relevant to the public’s information needs.

“We note that the production of the number of positive cases and their specific location benefits the public purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19, while the production of specific data on hospitalizations has a much smaller (if any) impact,” Hall said. 

However, if hospitalizations increase, Hall said they may health department may change their position on how they report those numbers among students. 

Both Blanton and Hall cited the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Health Statistics as reasons for privacy for certain statistics, specifically those with less than five persons, Blanton said.

“That’s because such disclosure could lead the identification of a specific person and exposure of their personal information, which is clearly protected by federal law,” Blanton said. “Our position on this critical issue is one that the Attorney General has agreed with as well. The Health Department and its legal counsel, which we have worked in partnership with for many months, was responsive to that concern in its reporting.”

Prior to the change in reporting, LFCHD had reported a total of 1,718 cases of COVID-19 among UK students, 1,487 of which were reported since the semester began on Aug. 17.

The health department’s update for Sept. 23 reported a total of 2,059 cases among college students in Fayette County.

UK’s dashboard shows 507 active cases as of Sept. 20, with 98 students in campus isolation facilities.

College students now account for 26 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Fayette County since March.

As of Sept. 23, Fayette County was in the “critical” red zone for COVID-19 occurrence, according to the incidence report map from Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.