Judge denies motion to give first responders names, addresses of COVID-19 positive residents

The case, as well as a County Board resolution ignited a debate on the balance between the public’s right to privacy and the need to protect first responders.

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First responders stand at attention during the appreciation parade for Vail Health employees, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Vail, Colo. The parade was made up of various first responders around Eagle County. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP) ORG XMIT: COVAI323

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A Cook County Circuit Court judge denied an emergency motion Friday to give first responders access to names and addresses of those who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus.

Judge Anna Demacopoulos said that while the “harm feared” by the Northwest Central Dispatch System for emergency workers is real, it “simply will not be avoided by the relief that it” sought in court.

And the potential harm faced by the public health department and the public interest is “real, concrete and avoidable,” Demacopoulos said in a video conference for the hearing.

“The public’s privacy rights and the health privacy rights especially are some of 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.”

The dispatch system sought the names and addresses of residents who tested positive for the coronavirus within the boundary of the Northwest Central Dispatch System.

The groupfiled an emergency motion Thursday, trying to expedite the release of that information. That move followed the filing of a lawsuit against the county’s Department of Public Health, Cook County, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the two heads of the health department, Doctors Rachel Rubin and Kiran Joshi, all in their official capacities.

In a statement, Preckwinkle said she remains “supportive of the Cook County Department of Public Health’s decision not to release such information in order to preserve the private health information of Cook County residents,” and she vowed the county will “continue to work with our municipal and first responder partners to continue to secure additional PPE through our local, State and federal resources.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference last month.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference last month.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The case, as well as a County Board resolution that would provide first responders with the addresses of those who’ve tested positive for the virus, ignited a debate on the balance between the public’s right to privacy and the need to protect first responders.

At the board’s virtual meeting last Thursday, police and fire officials from several suburban Cook County municipalities submitted written testimony, voicing their support for the measure.

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.”

Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell Davis gives a thumbs up to officers with the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security.

Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell Davis gives a thumbs up to officers with the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security after receiving personal protective equipment for his department last month in Oak Forest.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times files

Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU Illinois, has said the proposal was “quite troubling.”

After Friday’s decision, Connell said Demacopolous “recognizesthat it’s important that we protect constitutional rights in a pandemic.”

“Public health authorities do not think the proposed disclosures are the best way to protect public health or first responders’ health,” Connell said. “This is a win for doing the right thing, which is adopting and implementing policies that protect public health and privacy rights of patients and good decision.”

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