Preckwinkle denies release of COVID-19 patient addresses to dispatchers

  • Toni Preckwinkle

    Toni Preckwinkle

Updated 5/26/2020 6:35 PM

In her first exercise of the veto pen, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday overruled county board commissioners by rejecting a measure to release the addresses of confirmed COVID-19 patients to suburban 911 dispatchers.

Preckwinkle issued the veto after the county board's close 9-7 vote, with one commissioner voting present, last Thursday to disclose the information following a debate over how to balance protections for first responders with the privacy and civil rights of individuals.


In issuing the veto, Preckwinkle said she was following guidance from county public health officials who advised against disclosure of the information.

"As a teacher by profession, I'm a firm believer in listening to the experts, and the experts in our Department of Public Health told us this was bad public policy," Preckwinkle said in an interview with the Daily Herald. "That's basically all I needed to hear."

The veto issued Tuesday morning is the first since Preckwinkle was elected county board president in 2010. The narrow vote by the board -- composed of 15 Democrats and two Republicans -- was also a rarity. After the vote, Preckwinkle initially told reporters that the health department would comply with the board's direction, despite her objections.

In her four-page veto message, Preckwinkle listed various privacy concerns, including the potential stigma that individuals or groups may face because of their diagnosis, similar to what patients experienced during the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the potential for individual harassment; potential that information may be used by law enforcement to identify and target undocumented persons; and that such an approach could discourage people from getting testing and treatment.

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Echoing her health department brass, Preckwinkle said providing the addresses would give first responders a false sense of security.

But supporters of the resolution are sympathetic to the concerns of suburban dispatchers, mayors, village managers, and police and fire chiefs, who said having the COVID-19 information would allow first responders to take added safety precautions before arriving on an emergency call.

The resolution was sponsored by Commissioner Scott Britton, whose District 14 includes many Northwest and North suburbs. It was approved nearly three weeks after a Cook County judge denied a request from the Arlington Heights-based Northwest Central Dispatch System for both names and addresses of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Britton said Tuesday he won't pursue a veto override because he doesn't have the necessary three-fifths majority to do so. He said his primary focus now is making sure first responders get all the personal protective equipment they need.

"I felt I needed to carry the water for my first responders," said Britton, a former Glenview village trustee for 12 years. "I've dealt with folks like this -- the front-line men and women -- and I know how hard they work and know there's so much concern for getting infected.


"I wanted to do this for them. I did my best."

Britton added that he is also sympathetic to privacy concerns.

Preckwinkle's decision was lauded by groups who pushed her to exercise the veto authority, including Equality Illinois and the ACLU of Illinois.

"President Preckwinkle's veto recognizes that a basic tenet of public health policy is adopting policies that encourage everyone to seek treatment during a pandemic, not discourage participation," Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement. "Protecting private medical information is the type of policy that will encourage testing and treatment."

Preckwinkle said Tuesday she didn't issue the veto to bow to either legal or political pressure. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Twitter last week lambasted county commissioners who voted for the resolution, which would have applied to the suburbs only.

"Actually I had a conversation with the mayor about her tweet," Preckwinkle said of her formal mayoral rival, with whom she has often clashed. "It was a difficult conversation with the mayor about her tweet.

"I made the decision that I thought was right."

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