Cook County Doesn’t Have To Identify COVID-19 Residents — For Now

Some emergency dispatchers are seeking to have names of COVID-19 patients identified for responders’ benefit, but privacy is an issue.

Ambulance
A public service announcement about coronavirus prevention is displayed on an electronic traffic message board as an ambulance travels in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Ambulance
A public service announcement about coronavirus prevention is displayed on an electronic traffic message board as an ambulance travels in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Cook County Doesn’t Have To Identify COVID-19 Residents — For Now

Some emergency dispatchers are seeking to have names of COVID-19 patients identified for responders’ benefit, but privacy is an issue.

Cook County officials do not have to disclose personal information about some residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 — for now.

The Northwest Central Dispatch System, which runs emergency dispatch for police and firefighters in nearly a dozen northwest suburbs, is seeking an emergency court order that would force Cook County to disclose the names and addresses of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

During a videoconference court hearing on Monday, Cook County Judge Anna Demacopoulos said she would make a decision by Friday. But during the more than three hour hearing, she grilled attorney Patrick Brankin, who is representing the suburban dispatchers.

“How does that help the first responder become more safe?” Demacopoulos asked of revealing those who are COVID-positive. “It doesn’t. … [First responders are] still at the same risk whether they know that person’s name or not.”

She wondered aloud if people would be afraid to get tested for COVID-19 if they knew police kept tabs on those who were positive, and if police would respond more slowly to 911 calls if they knew they could be exposed to the virus.

The judge pointed out recommendations from Illinois’ public health officials, which say sharing the identities of people diagnosed with the coronavirus would give first responders a false sense of security, since so many people who are infected do not show symptoms or haven’t been tested. That includes the responders themselves. Cook County is following the state’s guidance.

Public health officials say police officers and firefighters should essentially assume everyone they encounter has COVID-19 and wear personal protective gear like masks and gloves to prevent themselves from getting and spreading the virus.

Brankin said that’s not realistic given a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

But what if police officers and firefighters had unlimited access to PPE, Demacopoulos asked.

“Would we still be having this conversation?” she pressed.

“Yes, your honor,” Brankin said. “We want to make sure we’re using those resources appropriately.”

In their lawsuit, dispatchers say a better practice would be to have first responders assess their PPE needs on a case-by-case basis, factoring in whether a member of the public has COVID-19. And if a person did, responders could isolate themselves for 14 days to avoid infecting others, according to the lawsuit.

Amy Crawford, an assistant Cook County state’s attorney who is representing the county in the lawsuit, added that there’s a stigma for people who test positive for COVID-19.

“We don’t want our police, for example, to take disproportionate approaches, to have more fear when they’re acting in specific neighborhoods,” where there may already be certain stereotypes, Crawford said.

For example, African American Chicagoans are dying of COVID-19 at far higher rates than other racial groups.

The tug of war between first responders and counties will likely simmer and could create a patchwork of legal opinions around Illinois as the pandemic rolls out.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has weighed in — but with recommendations, not a mandate. He said it’s up to local health departments whether they want to release information that could identify COVID-19 victims.

In an interview with WBEZ, Raoul said he understands the precarious position first responders are in as they do their jobs, particularly if they’re entering nursing homes where multiple people are infected with COVID-19.

But Kwame said, “I’m neither a doctor or a public health professional, so I cannot second guess the judgment of local public health departments.”

Still, even Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has asked Raoul to take a stronger stance. In an April 22 letter to Raoul, Lightfoot said when it comes to disclosing who has tested positive for COVID-19, “state law does not permit this type of notification, at least under current facts and conditions.”

Raoul said he stands by his advice.

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

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.