State of North Carolina health officials notified members of the press of an interesting change in handling information on the coronavirus.

From this point on in the coronavirus situation, the NC Department of Health and Human Services will no longer disclose the number of people being tested for the new corona virus.

The deadly virus, which originated in China, has now spread worldwide and has been declared a world health emergency. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of the virus in North Carolina; however, some individuals are being tested for it. When the first test was conducted last week, NCDHHS did announce it, however, state health officials included the following in a press release: “Moving forward, to protect individuals’ privacy, DHHS will not be publicly disclosing the number of people being evaluated for 2019-nCoV.”

In that notification to the media, the state didn’t explain how providing the number of people being tested would in any way jeopardize the privacy of those patients. If, for instance, when asked, the state said that there were 25 cases under investigation, there would be no way to discern who those 25 people were.

When asked how providing the number would jeopardize the privacy of those being tested, Kelly Haight, the press assistant for the department, gave the following answer.

“When test numbers are low,” she wrote, “the risk of identifying a specific individual increases, especially when there is widespread media attention. To encourage people to continue to tell us about their travel history, and similar to the way we have disclosed information about other outbreaks, to protect individuals’ privacy, DHHS will not be publicly disclosing the number of people being evaluated for 2019-nCoV.”

Her response goes on to say that, if people do test positive, that number of actual cases will be made public.

“Appropriate infection prevention measures will be taken if and when a person is under investigation and subsequently, if that person tests positive for the novel corona virus,” Haight wrote. “Should there be any positive test results, the total number of confirmed cases in North Carolina will be added to and updated on the DPH 2019-nCoV website.”

She also reiterated that the risk to the general public in North Carolina – especially of those without any history of travel to China – is very low at the current time.

Guilford County Health Director Merle Green said that generally the number of cases of any diseases tracked by the Guilford County health department are provided in reports and upon request. Green also said that her department has not received a directive from state officials to keep the number of people tested in Guilford County for the new virus under wraps.

The state’s new policy is interesting given the amount of specific detail state health officials provided publicly when it notified citizens of the first patient being tested. A press release on the matter stated that the person traveled to China, passed through Wuhan City – where the outbreak originated – and that he or she arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport wearing a mask on Thursday, Jan. 23, displaying respiratory symptoms, and he or she then went into isolation at Duke University Hospital.