Sometimes you read a headline and think it must either be The Onion or an error. Surely one that read “Judge orders McHenry County Department of Health to disclose names of coronavirus patients to emergency dispatchers” must be one or the other. I clicked and found some local police departments in Illinois have lost their minds.
The law enforcement agencies asked for the names of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 to be provided to dispatchers. The idea was dispatchers would inform first responders if they were heading to a call where an individual with the virus would be involved.
When initially requested by local police leaders, The McHenry County Health Department denied the request. This is obviously in line with state and federal laws related to the privacy of medical information. Specifically the agency cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) which governs how individual medical information can be shared.
The State’s Attorney Steps In
Great answer. Then it gets stupid. The law enforcement leaders decide to take the issue to court. It was State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally’s office that filed the lawsuit on their behalf. After the judge issued an order that forced the Health Department to turn over the information, Kenneally said this:
This was a no-brainer for the Health Department, a common-sense, confidential, and entirely lawful way they could have worked collaboratively with police departments to assist in enhancing the safety of officers and the community in these dangerous times, and they strangely refused,” Kenneally said. “The fact that we had to spend precious time and public resources, clearly best spent elsewhere in this difficult time, to get a court order in our favor is beyond disappointing
The Stupid Part
No Patrick. Common sense would dictate the first responders and officers treat every person and situation they encounter as if COVID-19 might be present. We know symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear. Most people do not get tested in the absence of symptoms. And if data from Iceland is any indication, up to 50% of those who carry the virus will remain asymptomatic.
Knowing who has been diagnosed or whether someone at an address tested positive is of almost no value in preventing the spread of disease. Since those who don’t yet show symptoms or will never show symptoms may spread the virus. The Health Department pointed out the obvious flaw:
The department stated that giving the names of COVID-19 patients to police will “confer a false sense of security to the police, and that they should be taking extra protective steps with all people they encounter, including with colleagues.”
The only strange thing here is the request. Do police departments in the greater Illinois area demand to know who tests positive for the flu? Did they request the information during the H1N1 pandemic? That strain was especially hard on the elderly and children. Do they ask for information on cases of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis? Did they require disclosure of the addresses of those who tested positive for HIV when there was no known cure? Of course not.
This Should Not Continue
The Health Department should have appealed, but they chose to comply. I am almost sure the Department of Justice would have taken an interest in this case if they had. The DOJ has already indicated an interest in the case of churchgoers being fined for attending drive-in church services in Mississippi. Likewise, this case is treating individual diagnosed with COVID-19 differently than the state treats individuals with any other illness.
It also leaves unanswered questions. How does one have their information removed from the system? What about patients who were eventually hospitalized and returned home only after a negative test? This is another example of overreach by the state that is both unwarranted and dangerous. Ultimately, it also does almost nothing to protect first responders.
Ultimately all of these authoritarians will need to be held to account. As citizens we are more than chattel to be managed in a crisis. We have surrendered significant personal liberty and freedom voluntarily to help stem the pandemic. This does not mean we should cede basic rights, such as personal privacy, without so much as a whimper.