The Battle Over Personal Data Must Be Rational

Having spent most of my adult life in public service, starting as the circuit clerk of Jefferson Davis County, Miss., and ending in the U.S. Congress, sometimes I take a public position, and am pleased that everyone agrees, and other instances I am surprised how much people take notice.

The latter just happened, when I recently penned an op-ed warning that the Biden administration needs to do more to assure people that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and that they should get it as soon as possible. I wrote this in response to concerning reports about high levels of vaccine hesitancy among rural whites and Black adults.

In my home state of Mississippi, people continually tell me they are not getting the shot because they are worried the government or health care facilities will collect and use their personal data. A lot of very personal data is typically required when a person registers online to get a vaccination, regardless of whether they go to a government facility, private clinic or pharmacy.

It is perfectly rational for people to have concerns about how their personal data is being used. What is completely irrational, though, is for Americans to refuse a potentially life-saving vaccination because they are worried about giving up personal information, when both public and private health care entities have stringent security measures in place to ensure patient data is handled with extreme care.

The data being collected is actually being used to make the country safer for everyone – to help slow the pace of the pandemic, save lives and allow the nation to try and get as close as possible to pre-pandemic “normal.”

According to the American Medical Association, “Data (especially data on race/ethnicity, age, gender) is critical to understanding the impact of COVID-19 across the U.S. but also to inform the appropriate response, planning and allocation of resources.” It is critical that we allow and encourage this type of data collection in order to save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other medical research institutions, are using this information for the public good, to track the efficacy of vaccines and disease patterns for safety, and not to identify people for any other reason. Collecting and exchanging this critical data allows hospitals to properly allocate their resources and prepare for influxes of patients, so that they can offer the best care possible. In Mississippi, hospitals have heavily relied on shared data to determine ICU bed occupancy levels, ultimately enabling our state officials to understand the patterns of the disease and inform their decisions on virus-related mandates.

Yet, despite the obvious public health benefits of the personal data collected about patients, some people are trying to use the pandemic as a call-to-arms to be more alarmed about our personal freedoms being eroded through data collection. Government agencies with files on everyone may be a problem in China, but not here in America.

In reality, many people who choose to work in government and health care in this country do so because they want to help their fellow Americans — not because they want to hurt them.

Because the issue of personal data collection is top-of-mind for many Americans, Congress and the Biden administration may seek to pass laws and regulations to protect people’s personal data. I am all for it, as long as it comes at the problem with the goal of trying to ensure that people can safely share personal data securely, and that businesses and the government must use that information responsibly. We must also hold companies and the government accountable to ensure peoples’ data is secure; that is the proper role for the federal government.

Finally, the collection of personal data can be beneficial to society from a public health standpoint, and helps ensure that patients receive the best care while health care workers have the needed resources. These are necessary advancements as we prepare for future epidemics. We must be rational about the benefits of collecting personal data, and not overreact so that people do things like avoid a COVID-19 vaccine, which puts them and our society at risk.


Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, represented Mississippi in the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2003.

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