Houston COVID-19 Report: Health Department Employee Placed on Leave Following FBI Raid

houston health department fbi glitch

Getty An Xpress Covid Testing medical assistant organizes equipment in an abandoned Dave & Buster's on January 08, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to decline, the Houston Health Department is facing new problems unrelated to the virus. The FBI raided the facility February 23, 2022, and a system glitch exposed personal information on some of those tested for the coronavirus.

There were 34,772 active cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, February 28, 2022, and a total of 7,198 deaths, according to the COVID-19 data hub. Last Monday, February 21, there were 59,769 active cases, down 29% from the previous weeklong period. This week, the active case numbers declined by nearly 42%. There have been 42 COVID-related deaths in the last week. Public health officials also decreased the threat level from level 1 to level 2. Officials are now advising those who are not fully vaccinated to minimize contact with others.

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Here’s what you need to know:

Houston Health Department Employee Placed on Leave Following FBI Raid

A Houston Health Department employee, identified by the Houston Chronicle as administrative marketing coordinator Barry Barnes, was placed on paid leave after an FBI raid in late February 2022. The newspaper reported that the investigation was centered on Barnes, but little information has been released on what the FBI is investigating. Barnes has not been charged. The city of Houston told the newspaper that the investigation is related to a “Health Department marketing vendor and employee conduct.”

Barnes’ attorney, Michael J. Wynne, told the newspaper his client “maintains he has been following all the regulations, the letter of the law and doing a fantastic job promoting the health department.” The health department did not confirm the employee’s identity, but said the subject of the raid was placed on paid leave March 1, 2022. His salary was $78,000 last year, according to public records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Barnes was involved in managing and signing off on invoices for marketing campaigns such as the “Better Together” program promoting masking, social distancing, vaccinations and handwashing, the Houston Chronicle reported. Much of that work was paid for with stimulus money provided by the federal CARES Act, the newspaper reported. The city received $405 million in stimulus money through the federal relief program in 2020.

The Houston Health Department Said a Technical Glitch Exposed Personal Information of About 10,000 Patients

The Houston Health Department issued a press release saying that a technical glitch caused about 3,500 portal users to have access to 10,000 COVID-19 test results for about 48 hours in early January. The test results included personal information including patient names, addresses, dates of birth, email addresses, testing dates, and test results. It did not include social security or financial information, because the department does not collect such information, the press release said.

The Health Department was made aware of the breach January 6, and the portal was deactivated. Those who were effected are being notified by letter. The breach was due to a “technical issue within the portal that erroneously linked some user accounts,” not due to hacking, the health department said. An investigation revealed no evidence of malicious intent or misuse of the data, the press release says.

The press release says:

The investigation to confirm the scope of the incident and to acquire resources for notifications took several weeks. The root cause appears to be a technical issue within the portal that erroneously linked some user accounts.

Letters are being sent to the affected individuals notifying them of the incident and providing information about free identity protection services for one year.

People who receive the letters or used the portal and have questions may contact 1-833-599-2432 from 8 a.m. through 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays except holidays. The hotline is toll free and provides interpretation services.

The department is committed to safeguarding patient privacy and deeply regrets this incident and any inconvenience it may cause. Additional processes have been implemented to ensure this incident does not reoccur.

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