By Bob Uphues
Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle has vetoed a resolution narrowly passed last week by county commissioners that directed the Cook County Department of Public Health to share with suburban first responders the address information of people known to have tested positive for COVID-19.
Preckwinkle, who said after the vote on May 21 that she was "profoundly disappointed," used her veto power for the first time since becoming county board president in 2010.
In her veto message, issued May 26, Preckwinkle said the commissioners' action "discredits the guidance provided by both IDPH and CCDPH, puts COVID-19 patients and county residents at risk and provides our first responders with a false sense of security. I cannot support the release of this information and am wholly disappointed in the decision to dispute the opinions of our public health experts, including the advice provided by CCDPH's medical expert, Dr. Rachel Rubin."
Commissioners voted 9 to 7, with one commissioner voting present, to pass the resolution, which suburban police and fire chiefs as well as elected officials have been pushing for since the pandemic began its spread in mid-March.
"I don't see how anyone who understands the endemic nature of racism in this country and the discrimination that black and brown people have experienced will assure them that this resolution will somehow make them immune from that discrimination and endemic racism," Preckwinkle said on May 21.
Preckwinkle also said she disagreed with the resolution given the assessment of its suitability from Dr. Rachel Rubin, senior medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health and one of the department's top leaders.
Rubin addressed the county board at their meeting, held via the teleconferencing app Zoom, on May 21, calling the resolution "not a good practice."
"Pushing out addresses to first responders does not help maintain the safety of the first responder or the individual they are trying to respond to for aid," Rubin said. "In addition, it can also create negative impacts on various communities that have had unfortunate encounters with law enforcement due to the structural racism in our society."
But, the resolution's sponsor, Commissioner Scott Britton, a Democrat whose 14th District covers north and northwest suburbs, said it was crafted to ensure as much as possible that personal medical information would remain confidential, saying that the resolution will expire in 60 days.
He pointed to opinions by both the Illinois Attorney General and Cook County State's Attorney that sharing such information was legal, adding that 35 states allow address information to be shared with first responders.
"I think we have to defer at some point to first responders who are on the front line, responding to these calls," Britton said. "They feel it's vital for their work."
Even though a Cook County Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a northwest suburban emergency dispatch center seeking access to that information indefinitely, Britton noted the judge in that case said health departments had discretion to use such information in a different way.
Britton acknowledged the privacy and civil rights concerns expressed by Preckwinkle, Rubin and other commissioners, but said the limitations the resolution puts on how and what information can be shared gave him confidence it will be used properly.
"Can I tell you there's never a risk? No. But because of the limits that's not going to happen," Britton said.
Commissioners Frank Aguilar (D-16th), whose district includes almost all of North Riverside and parts of Riverside and Brookfield, voted against the resolution citing privacy concerns and fears expressed to him by people in his district who are immigrants.
Those concerns were shared by Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1st), whose district includes a commercial sector of North Riverside north of Cermak Road.
"History tells us an accurate story of how these kinds of records are used for demonizing [people of color]," Johnson said.
Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Republican whose district includes most of Riverside and central Brookfield, was an enthusiastic supporter of the resolution, saying even knowing just the addresses of known COVID-19 patients would serve to "remove the mental burden" of first responders answering calls.
All three local police chiefs expressed gratitude to the county board for passing the resolution, with Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel calling Preckwinkle's statement "a swipe against all law enforcement."
"I would encourage Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and all elected officials throughout Cook County to work with police executives on the continued progress toward community policing and transparent policing," Weitzel said in an email. "Hurling 'shots' at one another is not productive for anyone, especially, the public we serve."
North Riverside Police Chief Carlos Garcia said the info provided to departments like his would not have been shared and would have eliminated guesswork for first responders.
"At the end of the day we want to keep first responders and the community healthy to further flatten/decrease the spread of the virus," Garcia said in an email. "The information that would be provided is treated as confidential and for official use only."