Jennifer Robinson couldn’t believe what she was reading when she saw the email Tuesday from her HOA.
“In the unfortunate event that you or a member of your household tests positive for COVID-19,” the message said, please report it to the HOA’s property manager. The property manager would then notify every homeowner, it said.
“In fact, the letter has already been drafted and approved by your Board to send, if necessary.”
The notice, from FirstService Residential — which calls itself the leading residential property management company in North America — was sent to residents of Forest View HOA in Olathe, Robinson said. It also was posted on the eNeighbors online site.
“I was shocked that they were asking for that kind of information,” Robinson told The Star on Wednesday. “Why in the world would I want to share my family’s private health information with my HOA?”
In its letter, FirstService said it would maintain residents’ confidentiality and abide by privacy laws with regard to the identity of any ill resident.
“FirstService will interview the resident to be able to effectively implement a sanitization plan for our community,” it said.
The letter didn’t just go to Forest View HOA. FirstService sent it to most of the 250-plus properties it manages in the Kansas City area. And reports indicate the practice is occurring in HOAs in other parts of the country as well.
“It’s causing quite a furor,” said Steven Hall, of Olathe, who lives in another Olathe neighborhood. “It pretty much lit up on Facebook. People were like, ‘Dear God, what is happening?’ My first thought was maybe the city has granted the HOAs some kind of strange power.”
He called his own HOA.
“And she said, ‘Absolutely, we’re not thinking of doing that. She was actually dumbfounded that others were thinking of doing that.”
Hall said his sister-in-law’s HOA in southern California had done the same thing.
“It’s not verbatim but the same kind of wording,” he said. “She said, ‘Is it OK for them to do that?’ And my wife said, ‘No, that’s violation of HIPAA.’
“Talk about stumbling on something you thought you’d never hear about. I’m a chaplain, and my wife is in oncology. And it’s completely foreign and alien to even think of this happening. We are so locked down on what HIPAA can and cannot allow that it’s just part of our blood.”
The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment was fielding complaints as well, said spokeswoman Barbara Mitchell.
“There is no public health recommendation for this action,” the department said in an email. “JCDHE does not condone any private or public entity asking individuals for private health information, including results of COVID-19 testing.”
If the health department is notified that a person has received a positive COVID-19 test result, the email said, “the health department will begin a contact tracing investigation and will notify the individual’s close contacts that they have been exposed to COVID-19.”
“JCHDE appreciates the company’s concern for keeping neighborhoods safe, but asking residents to report private health information is not necessary for any HOA to put its sanitization plan into action. Maintaining a clean neighborhood and sending out information that encourages residents to practice physical distancing and good hygiene will help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community.”
The department added that residents “should reach out to their homeowner’s association board of directors and make them aware of their concerns about this or consult a private attorney for legal advice on how to handle this private matter between residents and the HOA.”
Jason Burgess, a FirstService Residential property manager who handles Forest View, said in a post on eNeighbors Tuesday afternoon that the letter had been sent to most of the communities the company manages in the Kansas City area.
“It has been vetted by a local attorney as well as FSR’s corporate attorney,” Burgess said. “It is not a violation of any HIPPA (sic) regulations as we aren’t a health care provider, or a ‘covered entity’ as defined by HIPPA regulations.”
The goal of the communication, he said, was to “just share the information (not their name address or any other identifiable information) to the community if there were a reported case.”
“There is no requirement for a resident to notify the HOA, only a process in place if someone was to,” he said. “I think if there were a case in the community, most people would like to be made aware so they took extra precautions at the community mailbox, on walking trails and sidewalks, etc.”
Criticism continued to pile up on numerous social media sites.
“Not anything related to personal health. The HOA is out of line.”
“No way I’d give that information to the yahoos in the HOA office. Glad it’s not ours.”
“How ’bout we all just assume there’s a case in our neighborhood already and act accordingly.”
Robinson said she posted the information Tuesday on some Olathe-related Facebook pages. She also reached out to the health department, wondering if HIPAA guidelines had been relaxed. And she sent a message expressing her concerns to Rodrock Development, the developer of dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area, including Forest View.
Robinson said Rodrock Development responded on Facebook Messenger with an apology Tuesday evening.
“The intent of the email was to underscore the importance of following safety measures and precautions set forth by local health departments and to find ways to ‘flatten the curve,’ protect ourselves and each other,” the message said. “And STOP the spread of COVID-19.
“The tone and language of the letter missed the mark, and we apologize.”
The message said that “No resident is required to report if they are COVID-positive to FirstService Residential.”
The company thanked Robinson for reaching out with her concerns, adding: “As a nation and a city we are faced with an unprecedented pandemic, together learning a ‘New Normal,’ while also leaning on each other, and caring for our own and one another’s health and well-being. But as Rodrock communities, we are MORE than just a collection of homes: we are friends, a family per se. A neighborhood full of people that care for one another.”
Robinson said she appreciated Rodrock’s response.
“But I really think this needs to be clarified for all residents,” she said.
By the end of the day Wednesday, she got her wish. FirstService sent another letter to residents.
“As a follow-up to the previous letter, we want to clarify that notification of a confirmed COVID-19 case in your household to the management company is entirely voluntary and completely confidential,” it said. “Additionally, voluntarily self-reporting is not in violation of HIPAA, and we adhere to ADA confidentiality requirements and abide by privacy laws with regard to the individual’s identity.”
The intent of the previous letter, FirstService said, “was to encourage residents to self-report in an abundance of caution, especially as more shelter-in-place orders keep us in one place.”
“By voluntarily self-reporting, your Board of Directors and management staff can take the steps necessary — such as enhanced disinfecting of common or shared areas or amenities closures and restrictions — to further protect the health and safety of the community at large, including high-risk residents.
“We know the spread of this virus is understandably creating concern, uncertainty and anxiety. But working together, we can each do our part to change the trajectory of this disease and protect ourselves, our neighbors and our community.”
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