First responders might want to know when they pull up at a home or apartment whether anyone inside has been infected with COVID-19, so they know how much protective gear they need.
But the people inside have confidentiality rights over their medical records, varying levels of trust toward law enforcement and worries about their own personal safety.
Those competing concerns are intersecting as some public officials push to provide police officers, firefighters and other first responders with the addresses of people who’ve tested positive for coronavirus — and advocacy groups object, arguing it infringes on residents’ rights to privacy and creates more problems than it solves.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners is considering such a move. One emergency services system went to court to get the information for first responders. And DuPage County has already adopted a policy to provide the addresses.
In Cook County, the proposed resolution would allow for the “disclosure of one’s COVID-19 status to first responders, including non-law-enforcement first responders, for purposes of protecting these workers and preventing the further spread of the virus” for 60 days unless the board votes to extend it.
Cook County Commissioner Scott Britton said he introduced the measure after being “contacted by multiple suburban fire and police departments.”
“While they’ve been getting quite a bit of [personal protective equipment] from the county, they feel like they’re burning through [the equipment] quickly and … they would like to know if someone in the home has tested positive so they use more PPE when they go to the house,” Britton said.
At the board’s virtual meeting on Thursday, police and fire officials from several suburban Cook County municipalities voiced their support for the measure in written testimony.
Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell R. Davis III, president of the South Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police, said first responders have made “tactical and procedural adjustments” for responding to calls. but “it is not practical for first responders, specifically police officers, to respond to every call for service in full PPE.”
“We already give our officers all available intel that we have on dangerous individuals and locations before we dispatch them for service,” Davis said in his written remarks. “COVID-19 is a danger that we knowingly have information available on, and a conscious decision is being made not to make that information available for dissemination to our officers for their added safety.”
On the other side, advocacy groups also submitted written testimony.
The proposed resolution could produce a “social stigma toward people” that may “prompt prejudicial responses against them,” Michael Rabbitt of the Northwest Side Coalition against Racism & Hate said in his testimony.
Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU Illinois, said the proposal was “quite troubling.”
Connell said she “can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to protect people’s medical information.”
This is not the way to address a shortage of PPE, she said.
“It’s really important to underscore that people who’ve tested positive have done nothing wrong — they happen to have been exposed to a virus that has infected millions around the globe and to put their addresses on a list that’s shared with first responders, including law enforcement, is really troubling and will unquestionably chill some people from getting tested,” Connell said.
The ACLU supports first responders and agrees they must be protected, but the resolution is “bad public health policy” as well as bad “public health practice” since county health officials have issued guidelines urging first responders to treat everyone they come in contact with as though they’re potential carriers of the virus.
Providing the addresses may offer a false sense of security, while also increasing anxiety among people in marginalized communities, where relationships with law enforcement are already often marked by distrust, she said. And those communities are the ones being hit the hardest by the coronavirus.
“Do we really want to send a community that’s at highest risk — the African American community — the message that if they or someone in their family tested positive, their address will be released?” Connell asked. “It raises, again, the concern of how do you get off a database once you’re on it.”
Commissioners sent the proposal to the Health and Hospitals Committee during their virtual Thursday meeting.
The Northwest Central Dispatch System immediately filed an emergency motion trying to expedite the release of the addresses of those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. They filed a lawsuit last week opposing the county’s guidelines for treating all as potential COVID-19 patients.
DuPage County has already arranged an agreement to provide the addresses to first responders “in a manner that provides safety, while maintaining the privacy” of those with coronavirus, a spokesman for that county said.
In Cook County, Britton, a Glenview Democrat and ACLU member, said he understands where the advocacy groups are coming from, and “in normal circumstances, I would agree completely.”
But he said people have to be realistic.
“We have to make sure we have a practical system by which first responders aren’t going to be exposed to COVID-19,” Britton said. “I just feel like there’s a lot of history with a lot of things that have happened — with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with undocumented immigrants and the African American community — and it’s valid that they have concerns.
“But this is a very unusual circumstance that is going to be limited and designed to save lives and make the services provided by first responders more effective and save the lives of people trying to help as opposed to being hesitant about what home they’re entering.”