Addresses of COVID-19 patients to be provided to first responders, leaving Preckwinkle ‘profoundly disappointed’

The resolution, which was proposed in April, will 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.

SHARE Addresses of COVID-19 patients to be provided to first responders, leaving Preckwinkle ‘profoundly disappointed’
A Chicago Police Department squad car sits on on a West Side street corner last month.

A Chicago Police Department squad car sits on on a West Side street corner last month.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times file

Dealing a blow to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and privacy advocates, the County Board on Thursday narrowly approved a resolution that will provide suburban police officers and other first responders with the addresses of those who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus.

Preckwinkle said she was “profoundly disappointed” by the passage of the controversial resolution, which has sparked a debate over the clash between protecting police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders and protecting the public’s right to privacy.

Cook County Commissioner Scott Britton, who sponsored the measure, said he knows there are “civil rights issues that are raised” by the resolution, and though he’d like to be able to say “that we don’t have to worry about overreach by the government, that we don’t have to worry about inherent racism in the system” he can’t do that — but he could say that the resolution provides some limits.

For Preckwinkle, that acknowledgement didn’t go far enough.

“I don’t see how anyone who understands the endemic nature of racism in this country, and the discrimination that black and brown people have experienced, will assume that this resolution is somehow going to be immune from that discrimination and endemic racism,” Preckwinkle said, unsuccessfully urging commissioners to vote against the measure. “So for those reasons, there’s no way … that I would encourage anyone to support [the resolution.]”

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

Despite the plea, seven Democratic commissioners and the board’s two Republicans voted to approve the measure. Seven Democrats voted against it, and one voted present.

It was a rare defeat for the Hyde Park Democrat from the overwhelmingly Democratic board.

The resolution, which was proposed in April, will 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.

It only applies to suburban Cook County, not the city of Chicago.

Hazel Crest Police Department Chief Mitchell bumps elbows with Matteson Police Department Chief Michael Jones

Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell R. Davis III, president of the South Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police, right, bumps elbows with Matteson Police Department Chief Michael Jones as both of their departments receive personal protective equipment in April. Davis argued in favor of the resolution.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The resolution is not formally binding, but Preckwinkle said the county Public Health Department will abide by the board’s vote.

Britton, a Glenview Democrat and ACLU member, said first responders and those concerned about privacy, share a common goal: preventing “the spread of this disease to first responders and their families.” If there are any signs of the information being abused, Britton says he’ll “be the first person” to bring up eliminating it.

As for Preckwinkle’s comments before the vote, Britton said “I respect her opinion.”

“Her leadership and the governor’s leadership have saved thousands of lives, so we should listen to her when we can, and I have been very conscious of her incredible success in keeping this from being an even worse pandemic than it is,” Britton said. “But at the same time, I felt like this is the right thing for suburban Cook County.”

Scott R. Britton

Then County Board candidate Scott R. Britton in 2018,

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Cook County Judge denied a motion earlier this month that would given some Northwest Side first responders the names and addresses of residents who’ve tested positive for the virus.

Judge Anna Demacopoulos said then 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.

“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 at the time. “Once that data is exposed, there is no taking it back.”

The American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, as well as other privacy rights’ groups, provided written testimony against the matter, while chiefs of police, fire fighters and others voiced their support for the resolution.

Edwin Yohnka, the director of communications and public policy for the state’s ACLU, said despite Britton’s promise to be a check on abuses of information after the release of the addresses is like “closing the barn doors after the horses are out.”

“I think it’s really disappointing to see that nine members of the board voted to ignore the explicit warnings of public health officials to support this resolution releasing this private medical information. We had written to them yesterday and explained that this was really a dangerously wrong decision that endangers first responders and all county residents,” Yohnka said.

“That doesn’t negate the fundamental fact that the information is being shared in the first instance. ... By the time we find out that there has been some violation, some sharing, some abuse of the system, the damage has been done,” Yohnka said on Britton’s idea to roll back the sharing of information at the first sign of abuse.

When asked if the ACLU will fight the measure, Yohnka said “we’ll look and see what we can do and keep a close eye on it.”

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