The Snohomish Health District maintains an ongoing list of everyone who has died in Snohomish County. Information is taken from a statewide system that receives its information from funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals. Authorized individuals put the information into the system run by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH). Health District staff review information relevant to Snohomish County on a daily basis. This list is used to review and approve death certificates that the Health District is required to produce. This list also identifies child death review cases and deaths from infectious diseases.
For at least the last decade the Health District shared a portion of this data with various interested parties, including members of the media. During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, increased curiosity and awareness of individuals who died due to COVID-19, led to an evaluation of what information should be released to the public, when, and by whom.
The weekly death list compiled by the Health District contains personal identifiers as defined in WAC 246-490-010 and governed by WAC 246-490-030, which states in part, “If you request access to vital records with personal identifiers…you shall be required to submit a letter of request to the state registrar…” The title “state registrar” is clearly defined in the rule as a state DOH official. The Health District does not have notification or permission from the state registrar to release these lists with personal identifiers under the DOH rules. The Health District released the information as described under the Public Records Act because the Health District did not have authority to release the information on the same terms as DOH.
Effective January 1, 2021, RCW 70.58A changed who has access to vital records, data, and vital statistics. RCW 70.58A.520 states, “(1) The department may disclose vital records information for persons named in any birth, death, or fetal death record only as provided under this chapter.” RCW 42.56.365 also came into effect exempting “All or part of any vital records, reports, supporting documentation, vital statistics, data, or information contained therein under chapter 70.58A RCW.”
In order to release any data moving forward, the Health District must first enter into a data-sharing agreement with DOH and then enter into a data-sharing agreement with the party seeking the information.
At issue currently is the proposed data-sharing agreement (Exhibit A) drafted by DOH.
The proposed agreement would be in effect until February 28, 2026. Important points related to the Heath District include re-disclosure of information under either data-sharing agreements or the Public Records Act. Generally, information obtained by the Health District under this agreement is prohibited from further release unless otherwise specified in the agreement. Specific data listed in Exhibit B may be further disclosed if the Health District enters into a data-sharing agreement with the entity or individual seeking the information.
The proposed agreement requires certain measures to prevent unauthorized disclosure and cyber security measures consistent with HIPAA requirements for the protection of electronic data.