Civil rights advocates decry states giving COVID-19 positive residents' names, addresses to first responders

Lawmakers in 35 states have passed policies providing access to this info.

June 5, 2020, 5:07 PM

In Cook County, Illinois home to a massive jail-based coronavirus outbreak, local officials’ efforts to provide first responders with the names and addresses of those who have tested positive for coronavirus have come under fire from critics who argue the push for safety for some comes at a loss of civil liberties for others.

“As much as we recognize that our first responders need all of the support that is required during the pandemic, it can’t be at the expense of families and communities that have been marginalized by racism for far too long in this country," Cook County Illinois Commissioner Brandon Johnson told ABC News.

As the number of COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. passes 100,000 and confirmed cases top 1.8 million, controversy is swirling around the sharing of information about exactly who the virus is impacting.

Right now, there is no clear process for determining which states collects data on COVID-19 and how that information is shared. Starting Aug. 1, the Trump administration will start requiring that any lab results for COVID-19 reported to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will include a person’s race, ethnicity, zip code, age and sex.

In the meantime, the coronavirus pandemic's rapid spread forced states to contend with local and national shortages of personal protective equipment, a rise in positive cases, compounded by overwhelmed hospital systems.

When those on the front lines began to see positive cases within their ranks, many elected officials took action to implement policies they say were aimed at protecting their safety and conserving scarce personal protective equipment.

Lawmakers in 35 states passed policies giving first responders access to the addresses of residents testing positive for COVID-19, according to an ABC News analysis. In 10 of those states the policies include language that allows the sharing of residents’ names.

New Jersey currently shares names and addresses with police officers, EMTs and firefighters responding to emergency calls.

Colorado, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia give first responders names of residents who tested positive for the virus.

Those who support such measures say the goal is to ensure responders have appropriate gear and take safety measures when responding to emergencies involving COVID-19 positive residents.

Commissioner Scott Britton sponsored a resolution in Cook County that would have allowed the health department to share addresses of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 with first responders.

During the board's May meeting Britton said he was contacted by several local fire and police departments who supported the measure. He argued passing the resolution would help first responders make better decisions about rationing PPE.

Holding up a photo of a firefighter from the Niles Fire Department wearing full PPE gear, Britton said "Take a look at this. This is a full amount of PPE that is required on every single call. To suit up like this on every single aspect of their jobs every day is a challenge that they cannot meet. That is what every one of these first responders have hold me."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Office for Civil Rights issued guidance on how hospitals, clinics and other covered entities are allowed to disclose protected health information about individuals infected with COVID-19 in March. The guidance says entities may disclose details such as names or other identifying information to law enforcement, paramedics, first responders, and public health authorities “so they can take extra precautions or use personal protective equipment.”

The agency's guidance lays out circumstances under which COVID-19 status may be disclosed and provides examples including “when the disclosure is needed to provide treatment,” “when the disclosure of PHI to first responders is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public,” and “when first responders may be at risk of infection.”

PHOTO: A man walks by a memorial for those who have died from the novel coronavirus outside Green-Wood Cemetery on May 27, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
A man walks by a memorial for those who have died from the novel coronavirus outside Green-Wood Cemetery on May 27, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The guidance also says entities must make efforts to limit the information disclosed to only the minimum necessary to accomplish the purpose for the disclosure.

Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino says these measures are designed to ensure the safety of first responders.

"This guidance helps ensure first responders will have greater access to real time infection information to help keep them and the public safe," he said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to questions from ABC News on whether the agency is tracking which states and cities are sharing personal health information with law enforcement and first responders.

The American Civil Liberties says providing this type of information could result in unfair treatment or lack of treatment for some residents.

ACLU Illinois spokesperson Ed Yohnka told ABC News the agency strongly opposes the disclosure of this type of information.

"We did a quick survey and there were like 41 of Illinois' 102 counties that where sharing this but nobody had ever said anything about it. They never told any of the residents."

In a letter to the Cook County Board ACLU Illinois says providing this information could also give first responders a false sense of security saying "these lists will give first responders a false sense of security, and the release of test results will discourage many from seeking the testing and treatment that is crucial to ending the pandemic."

"Upholding individual privacy is what will best protect the people in Cook County who need access to medical care, the broader public health, and first responders themselves," the letter reads.

The information sharing is also raising concerns at the local level. The Cook County Board of Commissioners narrowly passed an ordinance that would allow the release of medical data. Board President Toni Preckwinkle vetoed the measure.

It was the first time in her 10 years as president that she used her executive authority to overturn a board vote. In her veto message Preckwinkle says her decision was influenced by guidance from the Cook County Department of Public Health and Illinois Department of Public Health to not release patient information. “CCDPH has already considered and balanced the need to release appropriate information against the individuals’ strong and legitimate privacy expectations,” the message reads.

Some states that have successfully passed data sharing measures are facing pressure to rescind these policies.

In late April, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order allowing the Tennessee State Department of Health to give police departments and sheriff offices the names and addresses of residents that have tested positive for COVID-19.

Tennessee Representative Harold M. Love Jr., who is a member of The National Black Caucus, says he learned about the medical data sharing in a local newspaper article.

“We never had a chance to vote on it, this was something done through the governor’s office,” Love said. “This became very concerning for us because we were right in the middle of trying to increase the number of African American’s going to get tested and we saw this as a deterrent. These policies were not going to foster that kind of trust”

Love is among the members of The National Black Caucus who sent a letter to Governor Lee expressing their concerns about the information sharing and launching a campaign to end the policy.

A week later the Tennessee Department of Health responded that the sharing of personal health information was no longer necessary.

“As the supply chain of PPE has stabilized and the understanding of COVID 19 has increased, the Department of Health has determined that continued disclosure of information of COVID 19 cases are no longer warranted, therefore effective Sunday May 31, 2020 the department will cease disclosing this information,” officials said in a statement.

In Cook County, officials say the debate over disclosing such data has been an “eye opening” look at balancing the need for safety for safety for responders and the civil liberties of those impacted by COVID-19.

“In a moment’s notice, in the midst of this pandemic and this crisis that we are living in right right now, if we are not careful if we are not thoughtful able how we behave in the moment how quickly we can revert back to policies that we have been sprinting away from in earnest,” Johnson said.