In a narrow vote, Cook County commissioners Thursday agreed to release the addresses of confirmed COVID-19 patients to suburban 911 dispatchers, municipalities and police departments following a debate over how to balance protections for first responders with the privacy and civil rights of individuals.
The 9-7 decision, with one commissioner voting present, comes after a judge denied an earlier request from the Arlington Heights-based Northwest Central Dispatch System for names and addresses of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus. The judge, however, encouraged the county board to pass a resolution to release addresses.
Commissioner Scott Britton, whose District 14 includes many Northwest and North suburbs, sponsored the resolution that directs the Cook County Department of Public Health to release only addresses, following a lobbying effort by mayors, village managers, 911 dispatchers and police and fire chiefs. They argue having the information ahead of time would allow first responders to take added safety precautions before arriving on an emergency call.
During the county board meeting held via video conference Thursday, Britton showed a picture of a Niles firefighter/paramedic donned head-to-toe in personal protective equipment.
“To suit up like this on every single aspect of their jobs everyday — and a lot of this PPE is not recyclable — is a challenge that they cannot meet,” said Britton, of Glenview. “I think we have to defer at some point to the first responders who are on the front lines of this epidemic.”
Opponents of the measure, including Board President Toni Preckwinkle and health department co-leader Dr. Rachel Rubin, argued providing the addresses would do little to increase responders’ safety. Because of the nature of the novel coronavirus, they should assume everyone they come into contact with is positive, they said.
Preckwinkle, Rubin and some board members also argued providing the data to dispatchers could impact minority communities who have had negative encounters with law enforcement and could feel targeted if their addresses are known. The measure also received written opposition from the ACLU of Illinois and Equality Illinois.
“I don’t see, as anyone who understands racism in this country … that this resolution is somehow going to be immune from that endemic racism,” Preckwinkle said.
Preckwinkle did not get to vote on the matter, as the board president only votes in the case of a tie.
“The ayes have it,” she said in announcing the close tally Thursday afternoon. “I’m profoundly disappointed.”
The decision comes a day after a Lake County judge rejected Sheriff John Idleburg’s legal bid to force the county health department to provide information about COVID-19 patients. 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.
Britton said 35 states allow addresses to be shared, while 10 let individual names be released.
Under Britton’s resolution, Cook County health officials are directed to provide addresses daily to the Public Safety Answering Point dispatch system over the next 60 days, and the information must later be purged.
Preckwinkle told reporters after the meeting that the health department would comply with the board’s direction, though a precise rollout of the information is still being devised by health officials.