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Judge Blocks Bid to Share COVID-19 Data with First Responders

The lawsuit filed by a group of 911 dispatchers at about a dozen suburban emergency departments in Illinois to share the location of novel coronavirus patients was blocked by a Cook County judge Friday.

by Alice Yin, Chicago Tribune / May 4, 2020

(TNS) — A northwest suburban 911 dispatch system failed in its bid to force Cook County to share addresses of coronavirus patients on Friday after a judge denied a temporary restraining order, citing privacy and discrimination concerns.

The ruling by Cook County Judge Anna Demacopoulos was in response to a lawsuit filed last month by Northwest Central Dispatch System, an Arlington Heights-based consolidation of 911 dispatchers at about a dozen suburban emergency departments.

The dispatch system sued the county, the Cook County Department of Public Health and its co-administrators, Kiran Joshi and Rachel Rubin, as well as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over the refusal to release names and addresses of people infected with COVID-19.

Dispatchers wanted that information so “first responders can take adequate precautions” when they run into coronavirus patients, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that their proposed address-sharing does not violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) because the threat of the public health emergency surrounding the coronavirus qualifies as an exception to the confidentiality rule.

At a hearing Friday, Demacopoulos noted that a list of those with COVID-19 could not be comprehensive enough to ensure first responders’ safety and could cause harm to residents.

“The last thing this court would want to do is give our first responders a false sense of security that could lead to tragedy,” Demacopoulos said.

She also voiced concerns over the privacy concerns of such a list, noting that “once that data is exposed, there is no taking it back.”

Demacopoulos noted the Illinois Department of Public Health’s position, supported by Preckwinkle, that releasing addresses won’t work because there are so many asymptomatic cases and testing gaps, meaning first responders should just always wear personal protective equipment.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul had advised that address-sharing is permissible due to the HIPAA exception, but he did not go so far as to recommend the practice.

The judge did grant the village of Lincolnwood’s motion to intervene and set another hearing for early June.

The lawsuit argues that address-sharing would allow first responders to discern when to use PPE — a benefit mentioned by suburban police chiefs who weighed in via written comments during a Cook County Board meeting last week, citing supply shortages.

Commissioner Scott Britton had been expected to introduce a resolution recommending the practice. He ended up sending the resolution back to committee pending the dispatch system’s lawsuit.

The county’s Department of Public Health has echoed IDPH’s concerns.

“Having an address isn’t going to make someone safer,” said Hanna Kite, spokeswoman for the CCDPH, in a Friday statement. “We want everyone to be as safe as possible and the best they can do is assume COVID-19 is everywhere and take the proper precautions.”

Demacopoulos said that logistically, the COVID-19 list would be impractical because 911 dispatchers can already cull real-time information on coronavirus symptoms when responding to a call.

A list from the CCDPH would require daily updates on patients who recovered, died, got false-positive results or self-isolated in different locations, she said.

Fears over being identified as a COVID-19 patient could also harm black residents and people in the country without legal permission, who have complicated relations with police, Demacopoulos said. She said that those qualms could exacerbate the virus’s prevalence in those communities should people feel discouraged of getting tested out of concern of ending up on a list.

Advocacy groups, fretting over the harm that address-sharing would sow on police and community relations, decried the practice last week.

Michael Rabbitt, founding member of the Northwest Side Coalition Against Racism and Hate, said in a written comment during the Cook County Board meeting that identifying coronavirus patients — who in Cook County are disproportionately black — subjects them to prejudice.

“From a harm standpoint, we must view this through the lens of the experiences people of color have had with the police, especially black and brown residents of Cook County,” Rabbitt wrote. “Given the history of systemic racism and shortcomings of police accountability, especially in Chicago, could this increase the risk of harm?”

Demacopoulos encouraged the parties in the lawsuit to find a solution that balances safety and privacy concerns.

“These are extraordinary times we are experiencing,” Demacopoulos said. “Just because the adversarial process results in a rule doesn’t mean the conversation between litigants needs to stop. … Now is the time to work together.”

©2020 the Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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