Reacting to the unprecedented leak of a secret AIDS list, state health officials on Friday hastily changed the way they collect information on the disease.
For years, public health employees in search of new AIDS cases routinely carried with them a computerized list of county residents known to have AIDS.
"They took it with them when they went into the field. It helped them to know whether they collected that information before," said Billie Pryce, a district AIDS coordinator with the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
Now, health workers are banned from carrying the lists outside the office.
A copy of the Pinellas list, on a computer disc, was received this week by the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, along with an anonymous letter. The letter said the disc _ which contained nearly 4,000 names along with personal and health information _ had been carelessly circulated by one of three Pinellas employees with access to the information.
The incident has rekindled a national debate about the security of information collected to track AIDS. In Pinellas, people whose names are on the list flooded the phones at AIDS groups, seeking information and expressing fear, anger and dismay.
On Friday, though, investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement refused to say that the employee, William B. Calvert III, is a suspect. The FDLE investigation has expanded to include Calvert's associates.
Calvert, who has received complimentary evaluations, has denied wrongdoing and says he has been set up.
"Somebody knows what I do and used my name, I would suggest as a personal vendetta," said Calvert, who remains on paid leave until the investigation has been completed.
HRS officials on Friday offered free counseling by phone or in person to people who fear their names are on the list. A toll-free hot line, (800) FLA-AIDS, will be staffed through the weekend.
Officials said that they are aware of only three copies of the confidential disc _ the two sent to newspapers and one sent to the Pinellas County Health Unit _ and that all three have been turned over to police. The Times gave its disc to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
However, an AIDS activist told the Times that at least two other people received copies.
"One was an insurance agent," said Patsy Stewart of the Community Alliance of Pinellas for AIDS.
Stewart and other AIDS activists reacted with disbelief to the revelation that workers carried the discs with them in the field. Activists long have been concerned that names could be leaked from the lists maintained in county health departments.
"It seems like a high-risk practice," said Anna Forbes, an AIDS policy consultant who developed a system for maintaining the data without names. "You might as well be walking around with the computers."
HRS officials said workers sometimes kept the discs overnight if they finished their work too late in the evening to return to the office. Then, HRS policy stated that "all information shall be secured in either the residence or vehicle in such a manner as to prevent any viewing or tampering by individuals other than the investigator."
Now, health workers will have to collect information in the field, return to the office to search the master data base, then return to the field to collect more information. At the health department, the information is stored electronically in a locked computer and on paper in a locked filing cabinet, both within a double-locked office.
"It will be more difficult," said Tom Liberti, administrator of the state Office of Disease Intervention. "It will be more time-consuming."
AIDS activists on Friday asked HRS to consider another policy change. Advocates for Sound AIDS Policy, a coalition representing major Florida AIDS organizations, asked HRS to delay implementing a new Florida law that mandates reporting of HIV-infected individuals.
The law, set to go into effect Jan. 1, requires doctors to report those individuals by name. Now, doctors have to report only people with AIDS. Any changes would have to be made by the state Legislature, but HRS officials agreed to examine the issue and decide whether to recommend a change.
AIDS activists have opposed such HIV reporting laws, in effect in 26 states, because of concerns that confidential information could leak out.
"We now have the terrible tragic truth that this happens," said Marcia Levy, executive director for the Tampa AIDS Network, where the ASAP group met on Friday. "Even the dead were disrespected."
Hoping to learn the origin of the leaked discs, FDLE investigators plan to work through the weekend. They will look for electronic fingerprints on the disc to determine when the original data base was copied and what type of computer was used.
Investigators also will examine the anonymous letter to determine the type of printer that generated it. And they will conduct routine forensic tests for fingerprints.
The health department employee, Calvert, 35, has cooperated in the investigation, his lawyers said Friday.
"At the appropriate time, he will convince the public that he has done nothing wrong," said St. Petersburg lawyer George Hayes.
On Friday, Calvert's former partner in a St. Petersburg funeral home said he was waiting for FDLE to question him about the AIDS list.
"They've been out to my friends, but not to me," said Gregory Scott Wentz, 32. "They're waiting for me until last."
Wentz said he did not think he was a target of the investigation.
Wentz said he and Calvert met about three years ago at the Treasure Island bar Bedrox.
He said his parents helped provide the money to open Southern Funeral and Memorial Services in a historic building at 2955 Central Ave. Calvert began going to the funeral home and offering to help with marketing, Wentz said.
Eventually, Wentz said he made Calvert vice president and Calvert moved into the living quarters with Wentz. About six months ago, Wentz said he changed the funeral home's locks and ended their partnership.
The resulting dispute prompted both to hire lawyers.
Hayes, Calvert's attorney, said Friday that his client had invested money to help operate the funeral home in exchange for half of the company.
During an interview Friday, Wentz said Calvert was a disgruntled former employee.
Wentz said his friends had approached him nearly two years ago to complain that Calvert was bragging about his access to the confidential AIDS list and misusing the data base. About six months ago, a friend complained again that Calvert was circulating the list while drinking in a bar. That, Wentz said, is what led him to end their partnership.
Wentz said he never saw the AIDS list, but he said Calvert sometimes left his laptop computer at the funeral home.
Wentz said he was not involved in the anonymous letter sent to newspapers and the health department and denied knowing its origin. But later Friday he said he and the person who wrote the letter would contact the Times.
Shortly after noon, the Times received a call from a man who said he wrote the letter and sent the discs. The man would not identify himself but said he was a longtime friend of Wentz.
The caller said he sent the anonymous letter and the disc to call attention to the security breach. He said he planned to hire a lawyer, but he had no intention of talking to state police investigators.
"I didn't think it would get this much attention," the caller said. "The thing that got me was the confidentiality. I think health records should not be released."
_ Staff writer Susan Clary contributed to this report.