Horse Gulch Blog

Watchdogging for the greater Durango area

6 Jan 2022

San Juan Basin Public Health discloses private medical information to public, again

Posted by Adam Howell


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Another San Juan Basin Public Health employee has disclosed private medical information to The Durango Herald about a death that allegedly occurred after a COVID-19 infection.

San Juan Basin Public Health told The Durango Herald that Samantha Rock recently tested positive for COVID-19

Samantha Ann Rock, of Ignacio, died 12/19/21.

San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon disclosed private medical information about a La Plata County resident to the public in a recent news story about the death of a child.

Samantha Ann Rock, 13, of Ignacio, died on December 19 at Mercy Medical Center, according to her obituary.

Rock allegedly “died following COVID-19 complications,” according to Durango Herald Staff Writer Aedan Hannon in a story about the incident. However, Hannon failed to cite any source for the claim that Rock died following COVID-19 complications.

Usually when a news reporter or organization claims that someone died of a certain cause, they will attribute that claim to a source. Some of the usual sources of information about the cause of death would be a family member, a Death Certificate, an Autopsy Report, a public official or a witness.

Instead, the reporting we’ve seen from The Durango Herald in some stories about COVID-19-related deaths provides claims without any source.

Why would they leave out the source?

Typically, when a reporter leaves out a source, it’s to protect the source who may be breaking a law or policy and is trying to avoid getting in trouble. Another reason for not quoting a source is because the information that’s provided by the source is dubiously inaccurate or unverifiable.

San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon

SJBPH Executive Director Liane Jollon

In addition, Hannon quoted Jollon who seemed to be implying that Rock’s death was somehow related to a COVID-19 infection.

“We have learned of this tragedy. It is very difficult to learn of the death of a child who has recently tested positive for COVID-19,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.

People who sign death certificates have been told by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that a COVID case is defined as a death if:

“the decedent died within 30 days of collection date if the decedent was a Colorado resident and is considered a case, either probable or confirmed.”

See the death definition guidance that’s on page 13 of this document:

CDPHE, COVID-19, Communications



Disclosing private medical information without citing a source for claim

Jollon’s statement to The Durango Herald about Rock’s positive COVID-19 test comes as the second instance of a San Juan Basin Public Health official being quoted by a Durango Herald reporter about an alleged hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection without providing any proof.

Colton Toliver's death was misreported as caused by COVID-19

Colton Toliver’s image, as captured with a sceenshot from his mom’s Facebook page.

The first time that I saw it happen was in The Durango Herald’s reporting of Colton Toliver’s death at Hilltop House.

In that instance, Herald Staff Writer Shannon Mullane quoted San Juan Basin Public Health employee Brian Devine saying that Colton Toliver had previously been hospitalized with COVID-19.

“When Toliver died Dec. 9, he was already out of the hospital after his battle with COVID-19.”

“Some people relapse into symptoms after their health improves initially. At the time of his death, it was still too soon to say he had fully recovered according to state and federal standards followed by SJBPH,” Devine said.

Alas, Toliver’s death was originally reported by San Juan Basin Public Health department and The Durango Herald as being associated with a COVID-19 outbreak. It wasn’t until I pointed out the uncomfortable truth that Toliver actually died of a methadone overdose–not COVID-19–that the Herald ran a correction.

Additionally, Toliver’s obituary that was written by his mother also inaccurately said that Toliver died from COVID-19.

Searches on multiple browsers and search features could not find the old Herald Staff Report that was written or edited by Shane Benjamin.

To this day, San Juan Basin Public Health has still not corrected their original inaccurate reporting about Toliver’s death.



How HIPAA applies to Jollon and Devine’s statements to The Durango Herald

When public health officials disclose people’s private medical information to anyone without the patient’s consent, it could be construed as a violation of HIPAA.

HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act. It applies to health insurance companies, hospitals, and entities that possess the medical records, according to 45 C.F.R. In contrast, HIPAA does not apply to journalists.

Brian Devine, of SJBPH

Specifically, HIPAA is supposed to prohibit disclosure of “individually identifiable health information,” also known as protected health information (PHI).

Moreover, the disclosure of Rock’s medical records (COVID-19 test results) to The Durango Herald does not appear to be allowed under 45 C.F.R. § 164.512 Uses and disclosures for which an authorization or opportunity to agree or object is not required.

In addition, Brian Devine’s disclosure to The Durango Herald about Colton Toliver’s alleged hospitalization due to COVID-19 also appeared to be prohibited under 45 C.F.R. § 164.512 Uses and disclosures for which an authorization or opportunity to agree or object is not required.

Ultimately, the ethical logic of disclosing the medical records of dead people to The Durango Herald isn’t something that I can say is always harmful or helpful. The disclosure of these medical records could be done to raise awareness for the better, or it could also be done as a political fear mongering tactic.


San Juan Basin Public Health emails staff writer at The Durango Herald

As a means of trying to find out what was said between officials at San Juan Basin Public Health and The Durango Herald regarding Rock’s death, I submitted a request for records.

To clarify, what I requested from SJBPH on December 28th was “a copy of every email and cellular phone text message that was sent from any and all employees of San Juan Basin Public Health to and from any employee, reporter, freelance journalist or student intern at The Durango Herald.”

What I received from the health department came 5 days later, which is longer than the 3 days that they are allowed by law to take to respond.

In their response were three PDF documents containing emails, with the Jollon quotes missing, as what she told The Durango Herald may have happened over the phone or in person.

Attached below are the three PDF’s that were provided by Ann Oliver, the Assistant Liaison in the Office of Policy & Partnerships at San Juan Basin Public Health.

Article
Re_Article
Re_Voicemail

Rock’s adoptive father Abel Soto said that he did not know how his daughter Samantha died.

If anyone who’s reading this has further knowledge of communications between SJBPH and The Durango Herald, please contact me.

Similarly, if anyone who’s reading this has verifiable proof of how Samantha Rock died, please contact me.

Adam Howell is a writer who believes in free press and the importance of the constitution. He can be reached by clicking on this link to the contact page.


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