Why two counties are providing COVID-19 info to first responders -- and others aren't
Health departments in DuPage and Will counties are providing addresses of COVID-19 patients to first responders while health officials in other areas are refusing, citing privacy concerns.
The DuPage health department signed a memorandum of understanding with the county's Chiefs of Police Association and Fire Chiefs Association that gives 911 dispatchers a list of addresses with COVID-19 patients that can be shared with first responders.
The pact "provides our first responders with information vital to their safety and health while still safeguarding the profound privacy interests individuals have in their protected health information," DuPage State's Attorney Robert Berlin said in a statement.
First responders in Will County have received alerts for several weeks when responding to addresses where someone tested positive for COVID-19.
"We were told some others around the state are doing it," health department spokesman Steve Brandy said. "We took the initiative and got the program going a few weeks ago."
But some say the approach raises concerns about privacy and effectiveness.
Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said providing such information appears to do little to protect first responders because some people are asymptomatic and others haven't been tested.
Because of community spread and a lack of testing, Yohnka said, "It seems like first responders would be better served to take precautions when they interact with anyone and everyone."
Despite repeated requests, Lake County Health Department officials say they won't release addresses of COVID-19 patients because it violates privacy rights.
"While other government agencies have elected to release this information, the Lake County Board of Health and health department align with the state's guidance that doing so provides no public health benefit and a potential ramification of this release could include the mishandling of private medical information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act," according to a recent letter from the health board's executive committee.
In Cook County, the Northwest Central Dispatch System is suing to get the Department of Public Health to release information on confirmed COVID-19 patients. Officials with the Arlington Heights-based dispatch system argue having the information would increase safety precautions that paramedics, police and firefighters take before arriving on emergency calls.
A health department spokeswoman didn't respond Wednesday.
In McHenry County, the health department didn't release names and addresses of COVID-19 patients to police until Sheriff Bill Prim and four police departments filed a lawsuit.
Earlier this month, the judge in the case ruled names should be provided but must be kept confidential and erased from the dispatch system seven days after the health department deems a patient is no longer contagious. The health department is asking the judge to reconsider.
Because people with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic, McHenry health officials say they fear providing names could give first responders a false sense of security. They say all first responders should wear appropriate personal protective equipment when interacting with anyone.
"There are people out there who don't necessarily know they have it," spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said. "So we are really concerned about precautions being set aside because someone gets a call and they think it's safe when it's not."
Kane County health officials said they are not providing names or addresses of COVID-19 patients to first responders, either.
DuPage officials say they believe providing addresses -- without names of patients -- is "a good compromise." Addresses are removed from the list after 14 days.
County board Chairman Dan Cronin said the decision was made in large part because police and firefighters can't protect themselves during every call because of a shortage of personal protective equipment.