By Mike Donoghue
County Courier Correspondent

BARRE: More than 220 COVID-19 tests administered at the Barre Auditorium to Vermonters last Friday have been discarded by the state Health Department with no explanation.

Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, in an email to 224 patients on Monday evening, offered “sincere apologies to you” for the inability to get tests processed.

The individual emails for all the patients were visible in the mass email from the Health Department, raising serious medical privacy issues for the 224 strangers.  The patients reside from multiple counties, including Franklin County, not just Washington County where the tests were conducted. 

The state’s online portal for patients to view their results continued to list the tests as “pending” as of late on Monday evening, hours after the botched tests were announced.

Some of those receiving the 6:01 p.m. mass email clearly were unhappy.  Some used reply all to share their frustration with the other patients and in at least one case had doubt about the initial email.

“WTF is going on?  Is this for real or a hoax?,” asked one patient.
Another wrote to the group, “This is a HUGE HIPPA violation.  I should not be able to know over 200 strangers medical information.”   She added, “Nice to meet you all.”

HIPPA is a federal law designed to protect personal medical information from being shared.  It does not cover general statistics for COVID cases. 

“CC’d 224 people that their results got lost.  That doesn’t seem like the best way to do it. lol,” wrote one patient, “Somebody’s getting fired,” he later added.

The County Courier has made a decision not to use any of the 224 patient names, even though a few agreed to their use during phone interviews on Monday evening.

Levine could offer no explanation in the initial email for the lost samples.   

Levine shortly after 8 p.m. sent another email offering an apology for the first wide-spread email.

“This was a gross error on our part, and one for which I apologize on behalf of the Health Department. The absolute privacy of your personal health information leads all our communication efforts,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, what was a clerical error resulted in disclosure of your email address,” he explained. 

Levine never said who made the error and what, if any, discipline was planned.

Levine then attempted to downplay the incident.

“Please rest assured that the content of the email and the recipient address is all that was shared. No personal health information was disclosed,” the doctor wrote.

Earlier he offered few details about the original problem with the tests.

“Due to circumstances beyond our control with transporting your COVID test, taken on November 27th in Barre, the laboratory was unable to process your results,” Levine wrote initially to the 224 patients.

“We understand this situation is unacceptable,” he said.

“We are investigating the source of the problem and correcting any failures in the system to ensure that this never happens again,” Levine wrote.

One patient said it appeared the Vermont Health Department, which sent the original mass email at 6:01 p.m., had tried to recall that email at 6:27 p.m. 

Another patient that received the original email said she had canceled her appointment for Friday and went on Saturday.    She said she received word Monday morning she was negative, but then received the Monday evening email stating her non-existent test on Friday had been lost.
The group email also was copied to members of the Vermont Health Department’s Enhanced Testing Coordination Team.

Some of the email addresses used by the Health Department displayed full names of patients.  In other cases, the first initial and last name was used, and many had a name of a business to go with the names.  In other cases, they had local school district, including, U-32 in East Montpelier, Harwood Union in Duxbury, and Mount Abraham Union in Addison County.
Those tested included at least one of the following:  a town clerk, a state legislator, a lobbyist, a National Life employee, an athletic trainer, a newspaper publisher, and people using emails from the following schools, the University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire, Rhode Island School of Design, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and University of Kentucky. 

© County Courier 2020