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Policy: A Break in the Florida HIV case By John Pluenneke

It sounded a lot like one of those stories from Florida we keep hearing about. A mystery like the chads. Or the anthrax case, which started not far away in Boca Raton.   

Two months ago a worker at the Palm Beach Department of Health (DOH)
accidentally sent out an email containing a list with the names of
6,500 people with HIV/AIDS. Officials thought the problem had been
contained. It turned out it had not. About thirty days after the incident mysterious letters started
appearing at the homes of people named on the list. "Your name appears
on a list of people with HIV/AIDS", the letters began.

Somebody had apparently gotten their hands on the list. That somebody
was using it to target people with HIV/AIDS. The head of the Palm Beach
Health Department called the case "terrorism."  Speculation immediately
focused on the e-mail leak.

Had a copy of the list somehow escaped and found its way into unfriendly hands?  It seemed unlikely we’d ever know exactly what happened. After all, the
anthrax case showed how difficult it is to track down somebody who
wants to go around using the U.S. postal service to mail things to
people.

There has however been a break in the case. Late last week, the Palm Beach Health Department said it has fired an analyst
in its HIV/AIDS program. It also said it had discovered another
security breach. There is suspicion that Dr. Shireesh Patel was the
person responsible for the disappearance of 15 pages of the paper copy of the Palm/Beach HIV/AIDS list. 

According to documents obtained by the Palm Beach Post, the internal
investigation into the matter found that Patel lied to investigators
about the incident. It also found that he asked fellow employees to
help him cover up the mistake. 

There are also new details about the number of letters sent. According
to the report, which was filed by inspectors Jerome Worley and Paladin
Henderson (a solid name for law enforcement, if ever there was one), 36
letters were sent to people with HIV/AIDS in the Palm Beach area.

Case closed?  Perhaps not. The Orlando Sentinel
has a piece which ran over the weekend, which strongly suggests that
things are far from settled.  According to Department spokesman Tim O’Connor the
paper copy of the list could not be the source of the leak because the
missing pages do not include any of the names of patients who received
letters.  Very mysterious. Very mysterious, indeed.

It would be interesting to know what Dr. Patel has to say for himself, wouldn’t it?

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  1. Until more information comes out, I’m inclined to believe this is a case of distracting the public with a rogue villain employee. This has the virtue of both redirecting public wrath from the Dept. of Health as well as allowing the Dept. to appear heroic in their swift action against the “terrorist”.
    If the “paper copy” did not containt identifying information, it seems to me that the actions described could be those of a man who was worried he was going to lose his job. This doesn’t even imply he made a mistake – it could imply he felt the powers that be were setting him up.
    I find the reticence to provide the Investigation Findings suspicious, and I bet when they are released they will contain all sorts of misleading claims and affadavits that contain various “accidental” lies that will be quietly corrected later (and the Dept. of Health may not even bother to correct perjury if they never intend the accusations to go to trial). The purpose will be to trick the press into writing the story the Dept. Spokespeople want. Since journalists no longer feel obligated to print retractions even after they realize they’ve been misled, the story will stick. The random judgments of bystanders who really don’t know anything will haunt this man’s name forever. Red herring accomplished.
    My recent experience with the DMHC, in which they intimidated me into signing a settlemen (and then later snuck in a paragraph that I hadn’t signed) in order to avoid admitting they made a mistake, establishes to me at least that State agencies are infected with the same Cover Your Ass mentality as corporations. If the organization is willing to resort to anything to cover their ass, why should employees behave any differently? This is why, in light of the Dept. of Health’s suspicious behavior with the Investigation Papers, I’m not inclined to rush to judgment about their chosen fall guy. And I hope other people realize they have no real information to work with either before they become unwitting collaborators in a PR campaign.

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