Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – The county’s Department of Health and Human Services is “investigating” how sensitive information on local COVID-19 cases and contract tracing operations was revealed to an international news outlet by a public health nurse.
A July 30 Bloomberg column written by Michael Lewis includes details about incidences of COVID-19 spread, including the outbreak at Eureka’s Alder Bay Assisted Living facility which led to four deaths there.
Titled “Confessions of a California Covid Nurse,” the column profiles and includes in-depth comments from county Public Health Nurse Erica Dykehouse, who is identified as “one of the county’s two infectious disease nurses.”
The column focuses on Dykehouse’s experiences as one of the county’s lead contract tracing investigators.
Filled with striking and potentially employment-affecting content attributed to Dykehouse, the column describes an infected “meth dealer” who agreed to self-isolate but “Erica suspected he was still sneaking out at night, and her suspicion was confirmed when he infected a buddy of his, who in turn infected his daughter-in-law.”
According to the column, the asymptomatic daughter-in-law then “went to her job at Alder Bay Assisted Living, a nursing home in Eureka. More than a dozen staff members and residents became infected. Four died.”
Another account describes how a “possibly contagious” elderly couple responded to Dykehouse’s attempts to get them to self-quarantine.
“She’d found them, told them to quarantine, and they had turned right around and hosted a big Fourth of July BBQ,” Lewis writes. “When she tried to contact guests who might have been infected, she found them either dismissive or outright rude.”
The context of those accounts is a portrayal of county contact tracing as being hamstrung by lack of cooperation, lags between testing and results, and an increasingly cavalier local attitude about COVID-19.
Stating that “by late June, Erica and her colleagues sensed that everything was moving in the wrong direction,” the column quotes “one of the county health officers” as saying, “We feel like we’re losing control of the situation. People are getting it and we don’t know where.”
Local news outlets, including the North Coast Journal, Lost Coast Outpost and Times-Standard, quickly reported on the column’s alarming claims.
The column is a problem for both the county and Dykehouse. Although the Public Health Branch has occasionally disclosed specific information about COVID-19 cases, the scope has been limited to what was necessary to inform and guard public safety.
Otherwise, county officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about specific outbreaks and rumors of them, citing the responsibility to maintain confidentiality and protect patients.
If the content of the Bloomberg column leads to public perception of lack of confidentiality, it could also undercut the county’s contract tracing efforts.
The column’s fallout was growing as Dr. Teresa Frankovich, the county’s public health officer, prepared for the July 31 edition of the county’s ongoing “media availability” video series, which fields submitted news media questions.
But there would be no discussion of the column’s attention-getting contents. The video began with a written explanation why.
“We’ve received a number of questions about the Bloomberg article,” began a message from Department of Health and Human Services Director Connie Beck. “In response to those I’d like to say that the Department of Health and Human Services takes confidentiality seriously and is investigating. Information about personnel matters is and will remain confidential.”
Variations of that message had been emailed to news outlets.
When the Journal contacted county Public Information Officer Heather Muller seeking response to the column, she was quoted as saying in an email that the county won’t offer confirmation or denial because “some pieces of information were shared with the (Bloomberg) reporter that could compromise the privacy of those involved.”
Muller added that Dykehouse’s account “does not necessarily reflect the broader experience of Public Health employees or the status of the ongoing operation.”
Frankovich elaborated on that in the video when she responded to a submitted media question on “the level of cooperation you’re getting and the effectiveness of the county’s contact tracing efforts.”
“I think our county’s contact tracing efforts have been amazing, frankly,” she said. “I am in constant awe of our team … they are working incredibly hard to identify all the contacts of cases and to really get to people quickly.”
On the level of cooperation with investigators, Frankovich said that “in general, most of the people that we are working with are actually very cooperative.”
She added that although “there are always going to be some people that are difficult to convince about the importance of this and to get the information that we need,” the “vast majority” of the people contacted have been “great.”
That’s at odds with the column’s descriptions of Dykehouse’s experiences. As shelter in place restrictions began to be lifted, a “discomfiting change” in people’s attitudes was noticed.
“People stopped returning her calls. People hung up on her,” Lewis writes. “People even lashed out at her.”
“It’s the first time in this job I’m experiencing people hanging up on me -- except with STDs,” Dykehouse is quoted as saying. “Most of the time you call and say, ‘I’m a nurse from Public Health’ and they talk to you or call you back. We’re used to people trusting us. Now they don’t. That’s been very weird.’”