Coronavirus

MCDH makes case against revealing COVID-19 patient names to dispatchers

The McHenry County Department of Health is asking a judge to reconsider an April 10 ruling that granted dispatchers access to the names of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The McHenry County Department of Health is asking a judge to reconsider an April 10 ruling that granted dispatchers access to the names of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

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The McHenry County Department of Health has asked a judge to reconsider an April 10 court order that granted 911 dispatchers access to the names and addresses of COVID-19 patients.

Attorneys representing the MCDH are hopeful that guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health will bolster its argument against releasing protected patient information. In a 120-page motion filed Tuesday, attorney Douglas Dorando asked to dissolve the temporary restraining order, which requires the MCDH to release the names and addresses of those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Dorando wrote that the release of private information is allowed, although not required, through a HIPAA exemption referencing threats to public health and safety. That same exemption, however, also advises that private details should be shared in “the most limited way possible,” according to recent guidance from the IDPH. In short, McHenry County’s health department can justify sharing patient addresses, but not names.

“Quite respectfully, it is submitted that this perceived need is more likely a reaction born of fear than reason,” Dorando wrote. “It’s not that fear isn’t justified. It is – this is the first pandemic of this scale in our lifetimes. Yet, that emotion must be set aside when the epidemiological facts are analyzed, and the expert medical advice is considered.”

Chmiel’s April 10 decision came on the heels of two separate lawsuits filed by law enforcement agencies in McHenry County against the local health department. The lawsuits, filed by the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Lake in the Hills, Algonquin, McHenry and Woodstock police departments, claimed that health and safety concerns should override those of privacy.

Knowing ahead of time whether an officer has come in contact with an infected person would better prepare the departments to make decisions including when to use limited personal protective equipment, the agencies argued.

But restricted access to testing and delayed symptoms have made it hard to pinpoint just how many cases of COVID-19 are in each community. Putting patient information in the hands of law enforcement might also discourage people from being tested or cooperating with investigation into possible exposures, said MCDH Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson. The safest option for first responders, then, is to assume it’s everywhere, attorney Robert Long said.

“A lawsuit isn’t going to get them one more face mask. It’s not going to get them a gown. It’s not going to get them a pair of rubber gloves,” Long said. “I think it redirects and refocuses attention that could be used elsewhere.”

In accordance with Chmiel’s ruling, the health department had 24 hours from the time of the ruling to disclose the names of COVID-19 patients to the McHenry County Emergency Telephone System Board. The ETSB must purge names from its records seven days after the MCDH determines that a person no longer is contagious.

Names only will be shared on a call-by-call basis, and officers are expected to keep the information confidential.

So far, the health department has complied with the court order. However, knowing the names associated with confirmed cases of COVID-19 might leave first responders with a “false sense of security,” MCDH spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said in a news release Wednesday. The health department has long advised residents to behave as though COVID-19 is widespread, and present in even asymptomatic people.

“HIPAA and IDPH guidance both are clear – this information will not protect our first responders, and this [court order] instead needlessly erodes the public’s privacy rights,” Salvatelli wrote.

A hearing on the health department’s motion is scheduled to take place Monday.

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