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Holladay Journal

Holladay-Lions center used in the fight against COVID-19

Jul 06, 2020 10:50AM ● By Zak Sonntag

A statue outside the Holladay-Lions Recreation Center. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The Holladay-Lions Recreation and Fitness Center, located at 1661 E. Murray-Holladay Road, has been temporarily repurposed as a quarantine and isolation center by the Salt Lake County Health Department in an effort to combat the spread of a COVID-19, according to a statement released by Holladay City in April. Medical privacy laws, however, compel officials to keep a lid on the details, which has caused some community members to take offense at what they see as a lack of transparency.

“We had a problem not (that) those people were there, but that we weren’t told. We had to put it together ourselves after we saw cot boxes beside the dumpster and even an ambulance show up,” said Maxine Turner, a Holladay resident and center patron.

The city’s disclosure walks a fine line between public transparency and individual privacy. In revealing the purpose of the facility, which is owned and operated by Salt Lake County, city officials may contradict broader public health prerogatives of protecting individuals’ legal rights to medical privacy.

“The decision was made from the beginning not to identify locations or how those public facilities were used in the pandemic response, because then anyone seen at a facility might be assumed to be positive [for COVID-19], and that’s protected health information,” explained Chloe Morroni, the communications director for the Salt Lake County mayor’s office. “That wouldn’t be OK because there is a health privacy component. Everyone has a right to have that information protected.” 

The park’s repurposing came at the direction of the county’s coronavirus emergency response authority, known as Unified Command, headed by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, along with its Chief of Emergency Management and Executive Director of Health. Unified Command transferred the Holladay-Lions operations from the parks department to the health department. And though Holladay residents have been unnerved about the lack of available information, health officials remain tight-lipped about specifics.

“We are required by state law to protect the identity of people under investigation for all kinds of infectious disease, from anthrax, to botulism, to HIV, and now COVID. The laws come under review all the time and we are confident we’re acting in accordance,” said Nicholas Rupp, communications director for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

These type of medical privacy laws have been in place for over 100 years, and they began in the early 20th century in response to the stigma around tuberculosis. Current legal privacy protections are found in a federal infectious disease act, as well as Utah’s Communicable Disease Act.  

“Public health does this sort of work all the time, but when we do our job really well the public doesn’t hear about it. A conundrum is that people don’t appreciate the work we do until it reaches something of this [coronavirus] magnitude,” said Rupp.

On a June afternoon outside the Holladay-Lions facility there was a sheriff’s dispatch vehicle in the west parking lot. Yellow cordoning tape fluttered in the wind. No one came or went.

“It is very, very quiet here all day long,” said a parks department grounds crewmember, who asked not to be identified. “Occasionally, someone will come out to smoke a cigarette, but they have to stay behind those metal barrier fences. Then they go right back in. Other than that I don’t see much.” 

Occasionally competing public health interest require the health department to betray individual privacy, as when identifying restaurants with known cases of hepatitis. But no such competing threat exists with the usage of county facilities, which raises questions about Holladay City’s decision to disclose the Holladay-Lions Rec Center implementation as a quarantine and isolation facility. Rupp said the city’s decision to release a statement of disclosure was not without justification, but he nonetheless hesitated to encourage such disclosures generally. 

“If a city wants to reveal location uses, first of all I would ask them what their rationale is and why they’re making the choice, especially because we’re talking about buildings they’re not even running, and we don’t share many specifics. Secondly, it’s risky because our building uses evolve very quickly, and if their statements are true at one point, they might not be true for long.”

Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle’s decision to release the statement reveals the city’s attempt to appease residents asking for details while also respecting the health department standards.  

“We put the post on our website and we vetted the post through the county. There are things we can and can’t say about it. Hopefully, they’ll do their best to manage that population so that it impacts our residents as little as possible, and that’s all we can say about it,” said Dahle during a May council meeting.

Still, residents are pushing public leaders to be more communicative.

“We want to tell them they have to trust your community. We want to know immediately when these situations arise,” said Holladay resident Turner. “Our small discussion with our mayors was not enough, we need to be assured as a community that we are being communicated with in the future. And we need to know in the future that our rec center is clean, without concern with lingering virus.”