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MCDH wins appeal fighting release of COVID-19 patient names to dispatchers

The McHenry County Department of Health no longer will provide the names of COVID-19 patients to emergency dispatchers after an appellate court ruling that first responders have "no right" to the information.
The McHenry County Department of Health no longer will provide the names of COVID-19 patients to emergency dispatchers after an appellate court ruling that first responders have "no right" to the information.

The McHenry County Department of Health no longer will provide the names of COVID-19 patients to emergency dispatchers after an appellate court ruling that first responders have “no right” to the information.

The decision by the 2nd District Appellate Court of Illinois reverses an April 10 ruling by McHenry County Judge Michael Chmiel and dissolves a temporary restraining order that granted dispatchers access to COVID-19 patients’ names and addresses.

“The trial court abused its discretion in denying defendants’ motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order because not only was there no fair question as to the existence of plaintiffs’ right to the information ... [but] it was beyond question that plaintiffs had no right to the information,” Appellate Justice Joseph Birkett wrote.

As a result, the MCDH has halted providing dispatchers with any lists, including those containing the addresses of COVID-19 patients, said Robert Long, the department’s
attorney.

Although an exemption under federal privacy rules allows the release of such information, the decision lies in the hands of the health department, the appellate court found. Sharing those details could have a “chilling effect” on residents when it comes to testing and contact tracing, Long said.

“We’re stratifying people into these arbitrary layers and, ultimately, the concern is we’re treating them differently,” Long said. “That’s exacerbated by the fact that epidemiology indicates that minority populations are being infected at a higher rate than the majority populations, the white populations.”

The Board of Health is expected to review its policy again during a meeting Monday.

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. First responders could better protect themselves if they knew ahead of time when they would have contact with COVID-19 or a person violating quarantine orders, police officials said.

The health department, however, argued that the names of patients were protected by the federal law restricting the release of medical information. Additional testing limitations and the infection rate at the time meant the information had little to no epidemiological value to first responders, the health department argued.

Putting patient information in the hands of law enforcement might further discourage people from being tested or cooperating with an investigation into possible exposures, MCDH Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson said at the time.

Instead, the county’s health officials urged police and other first responders to treat each interaction as if they were coming in contact with COVID-19.

In its ruling Thursday, the appellate court agreed that first responders “have no right whatsoever to the name and address information sought.”

“Because plaintiffs could not establish even an arguable right to the information, let alone a fair question, the temporary restraining order was patently improvidently granted,” Birkett wrote.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, who represents the sheriff’s office, declined to comment on the ruling Friday evening.

Throughout a series of preliminary conversations leading up to the restraining order, the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office represented both the sheriff’s office and the health department. When it became clear that the health department wouldn’t budge on its decision not to provide names, Kenneally sent a notice to the MCDH indicating that because of a conflict, his office no longer would be representing the health department.

The MCDH began working with its attorney April 8 in anticipation of a hearing the next day.

“However, the trial court ... advanced the hearing from the morning of April 9 to 3 p.m. on April 8,” Birkett wrote. “At the advanced hearing, the state’s attorney objected to the department’s choice of attorney, further complicating the department’s ability to respond.”

Kenneally previously said providing dispatchers with the names of infected residents was a “no-brainer” and necessary to protect the county’s first responders.

Names only were to be shared with select members of the McHenry County Emergency Telephone System Board, which would provide the information on a call-by-call basis only. The ETSB then would purge the information from its records seven days after the person no longer was contagious.

Long has requested that the ETSB purge any remaining lists.

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