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City bolsters privacy protections around COVID contact tracing, watchdog says

Ex-employees were able look at patients’ records weeks after being terminated, though the city said no one accessed the information.

Access Family Health Center in Englewood started providing coronavirus testing in May.
Chicago contact tracers reach out to people who may have been infected by those who test positive for COVID. The city recently addressed privacy concerns flagged by a watchdog.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s COVID-19 contact tracing program fixed privacy flaws that were called out by the city’s watchdog earlier this year, according to a statement released Thursday.

Some contact tracers who left their jobs early this year still had access to patient information weeks after their employment ended, the city’s Office of Inspector General found in an audit released last April. The report said it didn’t appear the ex-workers were actually snooping through the private information.

The city’s Department of Public Health made recommended improvements, the city’s acting inspector general said.

The health department “is well on its way to resolving the issues first noted in our April 2021 audit,” interim Inspector General William Marback said in a statement.

Initially, the inspectors found that a month after leaving their jobs most of the former employees had access to the patient records system even though that privilege should have ended within a week.

COVID-19 contact tracers interview people who test positive for the virus and those who came within close proximity of the infected. The practice is held up as a key tool in fighting the spread of the virus, though a 2020 Sun-Times story noted the local program, managed by Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership with a $56 million city grant, faced a host of challenges from the beginning.

The information gathered from the contact tracers helps inform public health investigators.

Chicago public health officials said in a statement they added “additional layers of protection and policy transparency to the contact tracing process, further enabling our ability to connect with Chicagoans who have been exposed to COVID and help them quarantine or isolate safely.”

Assuring that privacy is protected, health officials encouraged residents to work with contact tracers when they call.

“When you answer the phone and assist [the health department] with its contact tracing, you help keep your neighbors and community safe,” the statement added.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.