Judge denies Northwest suburban 911 dispatchers' request for COVID-19 info
Citing privacy concerns, a Cook County judge on Friday turned down a request of Northwest suburban 911 dispatchers, municipalities and police departments for information about confirmed COVID-19 patients.
Arlington Heights-based Northwest Central Dispatch System filed suit against the Cook County Department of Public Health last week after the agency declined to share names and addresses of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The decision in Cook County comes as a hearing Friday in a similar suit filed this week in Lake County court was continued to Monday. That case involves a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg seeking to force county health department to provide information about COVID-19 patients.
Cook County Judge Anna Demacopoulos announced her decision Friday afternoon during a court hearing held by video conference. She referenced a memo from the Illinois Attorney General's office that says disclosure is permitted, but not required by local health departments.
"The public's privacy rights and the health privacy rights especially are the strongest rights under the Constitution and the laws of the United States and Illinois," Demacopoulos said. "Once that data is exposed, there is no taking it back. It is a matter of common sense that the more people who have access to this information, the more likely that that information will somehow be made public."
Attorneys for the dispatch system, which handles 911 calls for 11 Northwest suburban towns, argued having information on coronavirus patients would increase the safety precautions paramedics, police and firefighters take before they arrive on emergency calls.
But the judge sided with arguments made by health department officials, who said first responders should assume everyone they come into contact with may be COVID-19 positive.
"This court must balance the rights of the public at large with the alleged rights of the plaintiff, and the last thing that this court would want to do is give first responders a false sense of security that could lead to tragedy," Demacopoulos said.
The judge also said dispatchers were likely to get more accurate, updated information about possible coronavirus cases through their questioning of 911 callers than by relying on a potentially outdated list.
After issuing her ruling, Demacopoulos encouraged the Cook County Board of Commissioners to pass a resolution sought by the dispatch system and several Northwest suburban towns that would provide for the release of addresses of COVID-19 patients. When that resolution was redirected to a county board committee last week, the dispatch system went to court later that day.
In a statement released after the judge's ruling, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she continued to support the health department's decision not to release the information. She also vowed to continue to work with first responders to secure additional personal protective equipment through local, state and federal resources.
In Lake County court, a hearing on the Lake County sheriff's lawsuit was conducted over video conference Friday afternoon. Attorneys on both sides argued the matter for just over three hours without a decision. The hearing will continue Monday.
McHenry County's sheriff won a similar suit last month, while health departments in DuPage and Will counties are voluntarily providing addresses of COVID-19 patients.