Kzoo Co. health officials push back on publishing COVID-19 ZIP codes

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Elected officials in Kalamazoo County officials want to publish a map of COVID-19 cases by ZIP code, but the health department says it could be misleading.

“In relation to zip code, it would really help us with having what is known as a heat map,” Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners Chair Julie Rogers told News 8. “In public health, there is often more information when you can see a geographical picture and determine if there are hotspots.”

The city of Detroit recently released ZIP code data that maps out hot spots on the state’s southeast side.

Rogers wants to add a similar tool to the county’s current data hub that breaks down its total number of cases by sex, age group, race and region.

While Rogers was joined by fellow commissioners in requesting this data at a virtual board meeting Tuesday evening, health officials advised against it. Dr. William Nettleton, the county’s medical director, said in this case, ZIP code mapping could lead to false conclusions.

“COVID-19 disease is a respiratory virus and so people are often most exposed to COVID-19 outside of their place of residence,” Nettleton said. “Folks are most likely exposed in a fair number of zip codes.”

Nettleton said ZIP code mapping is better utilized when it comes to long-term conditions like heart disease or diabetes.

Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford raised another concern, claiming the relatively few number of cases in the county could raise privacy issues.

“When I overlay numbers by ZIP codes or even townships, honestly there are zip codes or townships that will show up as one positive,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford said the tool is better utilized in the Detroit area, where the numbers of cases are in the thousands, compared to Kalamazoo County’s 201 cases.

Commissioners didn’t dismiss those concerns, but Rogers explained her main reason for requesting the information:

“What we’re asking is for ZIP code information to be released so we can help allocate additional resources to certain areas based on ZIP code,” she said during the meeting.

“We (the health department) have that data and we are allocating our response and our resources based on the information we have,” Rutherford responded. “So I assure that those considerations are being taken.”

Rogers said the decision on whether to release the data is up to Rutherford.

When News 8 reached out to the county, a spokesperson said officials are still working to get the final decision and don’t yet have an official response.