Many Grand Strand, Pee Dee school districts aren’t tracking vaccination rates of staff

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Published: Aug. 18, 2021 at 7:49 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - There’s a seemingly simple question many school districts aren’t asking their employees:

“What’s your vaccination status?”

But some districts say a federal law is what’s preventing them from gathering this information.

Privacy and information security attorney Jack Pringle said public and private employers might mandate vaccinations.

“There’s a big public and private concern about the virus and the potential effect that it may have on the workplace and on the community,” said Pringle.

This is not currently the case for South Carolina school districts, but some are making the decision to inquire how many of their staff have gotten the shot.

WMBF Investigates surveyed public school districts in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee regarding their employees’ vaccination status.

Georgetown County Schools said that as of April, 67% of district employees were vaccinated. In Marlboro County, the district says 80% of staff have received at least one shot.

Florence School District 2 said 72% of its staff is fully vaccinated, while Florence School District 5 said 79% of those completing it said they were either vaccinated or planned to be in a voluntary survey. Just over half of the FSD5 staff completed that survey.

Pringle said public and private organizations may collect this information in order to make decisions during an uncertain time.

“If you have some idea - ‘Well, we have X number of percent who have received two doses of the vaccine or the requisite amounts of the vaccine,’ Then that might inform not just, ‘do we stay open and in-person?’, but it might inform employee travel,” Pringle explained. “It might inform any number of different questions and challenges that an organization, both public or private, would have in managing the return to work or the ongoing operations of an organization.”

But other school districts told us they didn’t have this information. Some, including Horry County Schools, explained they couldn’t track this information because of HIPAA.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulates who can see and receive an individual’s health information.

“Speaking generally, HIPAA applies to covered entities, which are health care providers and other healthcare-related organizations that conduct electronic transactions,” Pringle said. “So, as a general proposition, HIPAA only puts obligations on covered entities, like I mentioned, and their business associates.”

But the Department of Health and Human Services website states organizations such as schools, cities, and your employer are not subject to following this law.

WMBF Investigates asked Horry County Schools why this is the basis for them not tracking this information, and if they think they ought to.

A district spokesperson said in a conversation through email that the decision was an administrative one and “balancing the medical privacy of our staff and a voluntary vaccine that is not required is tricky. At this time, we do not require our staff to divulge their vaccination status.”

A spokesperson for the S.C. Department of Education said that the concept of HIPAA applying or not applying to asking for this information has a dual answer.

“Districts can ask about vaccination status but teachers and staff do not have to disclose it,” the spokesperson wrote. “This prevents districts and states from having accurate information.”

Pringle said during the pandemic, public entities are “having to make decisions based upon the best available information that they have at the time.”

“As with all governmental and human problems, there’s a lot of gray area and a lot of ambiguity,” he said. “Sometimes it’s messy and doesn’t seem like it gives a result that is as clear cut and straightforward as maybe folks would like. But that’s the nature of public policy.”

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