Cook County Is Considering Disclosing COVID-19 Patients’ Addresses to First Responders

Cook County seal with Preckwinkle
Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presides over a meeting with commissioners. The County Board is considering whether to release the addresses of people who test positive for COVID-19 to first responders. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Cook County seal with Preckwinkle
Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presides over a meeting with commissioners. The County Board is considering whether to release the addresses of people who test positive for COVID-19 to first responders. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Cook County Is Considering Disclosing COVID-19 Patients’ Addresses to First Responders

Some Cook County commissioners want the county’s public health department to temporarily disclose the addresses of suburban residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, saying the move would make first responders safer.

That’s despite the Illinois Department of Public Health recommending against such disclosures over privacy concerns.

Commissioner Scott Britton, a Democrat from north suburban Glenview, is the lead sponsor on a resolution that recommends — but does not require — the address disclosures of COVID-positive residents for at least 60 days. Cook County would only disclose addresses to first responders and later purge the information.

Britton said he’s heard from several police and fire chiefs, mayors and village managers about concerns for their first responders’ safety when it comes to answering 911 calls.

While they appreciate the protective gear like masks and gloves the county has provided, Britton said they want to know whether they’re entering the home of someone who has tested positive for the new coronavirus. They might take more precautions if they are, Britton said.

“Because of the nature of the calls that they’re getting and the number that they have to respond to, they just feel that it is not practical, necessarily, to suit up for every call,” Britton said.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote Thursday on Britton’s resolution, which is only advisory.

Concerns about the safety of first responders amid COVID-19 are emerging around Illinois. But in a memo to local health departments earlier this month, IDPH said giving first responders and law enforcement officials the identities of COVID-positive residents doesn’t have much value, since there are likely a large number of people who are infected but who display no symptoms.

“Providing this information could also give first responders and law enforcement a false sense of security, as many people who are ill may not have been tested yet,” the state memo reads. “Additionally, many who have tested positive are no longer contagious.”

The memo said the safety of first responders and law enforcement “is of paramount importance,” and recommended they wear personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, “instead of relying on reports of COVID-19 positive individuals.” But health care providers and first responders are scrambling to get protective equipment, too.

And while protecting first responders is a priority, so is protecting the identity of people who test positive for the new coronavirus to prevent them from being stigmatized, the memo said.

Britton said he’s aware of privacy concerns. But he said his suggestions protect residents more than what public officials in other counties have proposed, such as naming COVID-positive residents.

Britton said he doesn’t know if he has the votes for his measure to pass. He’s one of 17 commissioners on the board, and five others are co-sponsors of his resolution. The board’s leader, Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, does not support disclosing the addresses, Britton said.

Even if his measure does pass, it’s not binding. But Britton said he hopes the county’s public health department complies.

That could be a tough sell. In a statement, a county public health department spokesperson echoed some of the state’s guidance.

“Providing addresses can result in a false sense of security when all public health authorities agree that there are far more cases in the population than currently confirmed by available testing,” the statement said. “And because it has been determined that asymptomatic individuals can spread the disease, it is possible that first responders could unknowingly infect people they come in contact with.”

Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics team. Follow her @kschorsch.