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Port: Vaccination cold calls raise privacy concerns with lawmakers

Does a government cold-call program utilizing private medical records help assuage vaccination fears? Or does it stoke them?

MSUM Vax 2.jpg
An Essentia Health nurse fills a vial with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during an on-campus vaccine clinic at Minnesota State University Moorhead Tuesday, May 4. Tanner Robinson / WDAY
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MINOT, N.D. — I've had a few readers contact me recently saying they've been cold-called about their vaccination status by people from the North Dakota Department of Health .

The calls are intended to help citizens make appointments to get vaccinated, but how the state is getting the medical data on which citizens are vaccinated, and which are not, is raising privacy concerns with the people who have contacted me.

And I'm apparently not the only one being contacted about this issue.

Two state lawmakers — Sen. Nicole Poolman of Bismarck and Sen. Jessica Unruh Bell of Beulah, both Republicans — have sent a letter to State Health Officer Dr. Nizar Wehbi inquiring about the calls.

"We recently became aware of the North Dakota Department of Health's vaccine initiative consisting of unsolicited phone calls regarding one's current vaccination status," the Senators write in their letter. "While we understand the importance of educating society about vaccines, we do not believe it is the role of the Department of Health to interfere in individuals' personal health choices."

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The letter asks Dr. Wehbi a number of questions, including what sort of confidentiality protections exist when it comes to vaccination status, who is making the calls, the licensing status of those making the calls, and how the data on the lists is being protected.

"These concerns are among many we have regarding these practices," the Senators continue in their letter, which calls on the DOH to "crease these practices if they are ongoing."

I reached out to the North Dakota Department of Health and was told they would only respond to my inquiries via email.

I've sent in a message, and subsequently received a message indicating that the DoH was reviewing the letter.

Getting North Dakotans vaccinated is clearly a top priority. The vaccines are working. North Dakota, and the country, have seen a plummetting number of active COVID-19 cases. Even those who are still getting sick aren't getting as sick.

Vaccines protect people.

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Full stop.

Still, there is a lot of vaccine hesitancy out there, for a variety of reasons. Especially in North Dakota . Some of that hesitancy is rooted in fears about medical privacy amid the push for vaccines, not to mention "papers please" policies that require disclosure of vaccine status to travel or participate in events.

Even before we get to the pertinent questions about privacy and process raised by the Senators, does a government cold-call program utilizing private medical records help assuage those fears?

Or does it stoke them?

I suspect it's the latter.

This initiative is likely doing more harm than good to the cause of getting people vaccinated.

We need to inspire people to choose vaccinations. If we try to bully and badger them into it, the effort is going to backfire.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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