Suburban first responders who have urged Cook County to share the addresses of people who are known to have tested positive for COVID-19 will have to wait a bit longer for a decision after county commissioners voted on April 23 to refer the matter to the county board’s health and hospitals committee.
The resolution’s sponsor, Commissioner Scott Britton (D-14th) whose district is located in the northwest suburbs, said he requested the resolution be moved to committee in part because of a lawsuit filed April 20 by the Northwest Central Dispatch System seeking a judge’s order requiring the county to provide names and addresses of positive COVID-19 cases in its member communities.
Northwest Central Dispatch System serves 11 communities in the northwest part of Cook County.
“Since I introduced this resolution, litigation has been initiated, and I’d like time to analyze that issue,” Britton told fellow commissioners at the Cook County Board’s meeting on April 23, which was held virtually.
Britton also said he wanted the committee to address other issues related to the resolution, which would have only provided address information to local police and fire chiefs. While he didn’t specify what those issues were, they almost certainly were related to privacy and potential discrimination issues mentioned during the meeting’s public comment portion by opponents of the resolution.
Commissioner Frank Aguilar, who was attending his first meeting of the county board as the new representative of the 16th District, which includes North Riverside and portions of Brookfield and Riverside, said he was glad the resolution was getting more scrutiny.
Aguilar whose district also includes heavily Hispanic areas, such as Cicero and Berwyn, said undocumented residents of his district feared how such information might be shared and used.
“There is a fear above their heads,” Aguilar said. “We definitely support our first responders … but if there is a way, we could tweak it and take the fear off of our undocumented residents so we can approve the resolution.”
Commissioner Sean Morrison (R-17th), whose district includes most of Riverside and part of Brookfield, is a co-sponsor of the resolution.
Among those providing written testimony in support of the resolution were Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel and Fire Chief Matthew Buckley in a joint statement that was read to commissioners during the meeting.
“The bottom line is that full disclosure [of addresses] to first responders will enable them to use personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” the chiefs said.
The resolution also garnered the support of several other suburban mayors and police chiefs, including Chief Mitchell R. Davis III, president of the South Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police, which represents 65 municipalities.
Davis said that while first responders already take additional precautions for every call for service, it’s not practical for first responders, especially police, to treat every call as if they are dealing with someone positive for COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is a danger we knowingly have information on and a conscious decision is being made not to make that information available for dissemination to our officers for their additional safety,” Davis said in his written testimony.
Not everyone is so sure providing that information to first responders is such a good idea, however.
Michael Rabbitt, a founder of the Northwest Side Coalition against Racism and Hate, said there are “serious potential consequences” if the resolution is passed “beyond obvious privacy concerns.”
“Fear and anxiety about COVID-19 has produced social stigma toward people. Identifying people with COVID-19 taints them, which may prompt prejudicial responses against them,” Rabbitt said in his written testimony. “Families and friends of identified patients may also be stigmatized by extension. In fact, we’ve already seen this play out nationally against Asian and Chinese-Americans, with well over 1,000 incidents of discrimination, hate and harassment reported.”
He also worries about how police, particularly in Chicago, might use that information when approaching people identified as testing positive.
“Given the history of systemic racism and shortcomings of police accountability, especially in Chicago, could this increase the risk of harm?” Rabbitt asked. “Does this resolution actually ensure the safety of residents?”
Brian Johnson, the CEO of Equality Illinois, a civil rights organization serving the LGBTQ community, said the resolution is likely to put first responders in more danger since testing has sometimes proven unreliable and because of suspicion about how information will be shared.
“We have learned from other epidemics that individuals are less likely to be tested if they are uncertain how governments will disseminate or use that data,” Johnson said. “This skepticism is more acute among historically marginalized communities.
“We want to acknowledge civil liberties and privacy concerns that such disclosures create. Our communities function best when we can trust our government not to disclose our private information to others.”
It’s not clear when the health and hospitals committee will take up the resolution or how quickly it might return for consideration by the full board of commissioners.
“My intent is to do this as quickly as possible,” Britton said.
This article has been changed to correct the spelling of Michael Rabbitt’s name.