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Health department apologizes for privacy breach


Some travellers self-isolating in Yellowknife had their identities revealed by a government worker who sent an email recommending COVID-testing, and their email addresses, and some of their names, were visible to others on the distribution list. 

“This resulted in a breach of your information,” stated Michele Herriot, the Department of Health and Social Services' chief information officer, in an April 22 letter obtained by Northern News Services.

An email entitled “Important Information from the COVID-19 Secretariat" was sent to 1,211 unique email addresses at 9:44 p.m. on April 19, according to Dawn Ostrem, manager of the COVID-19 Operations Communications with the COVID Secretariat.

Earlier on the same date, news media had received a similar email at 7:30 p.m. stating that wastewater samples analyzed in Yellowknife between April 14 and 17, 2021 had signaled undetected COVID-19. It had asked anyone who has travelled outside the NWT and self-isolating or self-monitoring between those dates in Yellowknife to arrange for COVID-19 testing.

The media public health advisory "contained a general public notification of the wastewater test results which included similar recommendations for the public," stated Ostrem.

Herriot attributed the April 19 violation of privacy to “human error.” 

“The (COVID Secretariat) employee recognized the error immediately and attempted to recall the email but this recall was not successful in most cases,” reads the one-and-a-half-page letter. 

Measures taken 

Herriot states in the letter that the Health department is taking additional measures to ensure that further breaches of privacy don’t occur. 

“The (COVID Secretariat) will also ensure that operational staff are directed to review the current procedures for emailing personal information and privacy best practices for handling client information accordingly,” reads the correspondence. 

The letter states that there is no further concern about personal information being disclosed from this particular incident. 

The breach has also been forwarded to the NWT Information and Privacy Commissioner, as per the Health Information Act, according to the email. 

According to the act, people concerned that their personal information has “been collected, used or disclosed without proper authorization” can seek a review through the Office of the Information Privacy Commissioner, Herriot states.