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Appellate court rules in favor of health department in battle over releasing COVID-19 patient data

File Photo | Photo by Alex Vucha.

The McHenry County Health Department won an appeal and will no longer have to release names of COVID-19 patients to 911 dispatchers after an appellate court ruled in their favor.

The 2nd District Appellate Court of Illinois reversed an April 10 ruling by McHenry County Judge Michael Chmiel that gave the McHenry County Emergency Telephone System Board access to names and addresses of those who test positive for COVID-19.

“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 sought to be compelled in the temporary restraining order, it was beyond question that plaintiffs had no right to the information,” Appellate Justice Joseph Birkett said.

Birkett said the protected health information that was released fell within an exception to HIPAA that permitted but did not require the health department to release it.

“Because there is no right to the information sought, plaintiffs could not demonstrate the existence of a fair question regarding the right sought—indeed, rather than a fair question, it is beyond question that plaintiffs have no right to the information sought, the names and addresses,” Birkett said.

The temporary restraining order issued on April 10 by the McHenry County circuit court was dissolved and the health department is no longer providing the patient information.

“The appellate court’s action today stops a violation of privacy and advances public health. Public health officials have been clear that stigmatizing people by including them on law enforcement and other first responder lists discourages testing and treatment,” said Ameri Klafeta, Director of Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project for the ACLU.

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The legal battle began in April when the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office along the McHenry, Algonquin, Woodstock, and Lake in the Hills police departments filed a lawsuit.

The lawsuit asked to have the health department turn over names of coronavirus patients so that police officers can take adequate precautions should they make contact with someone who has the virus.

“MCDH believes that having the names of these patients will actually 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 McHenry County Department of Health said in April.

“The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as Illinois privacy law, indicate that it is permissible to release protected health information during this time, but only the ‘minimum necessary to accomplish the purpose.'” the health department said.

“In MCDH’s professional public health opinion, given what we know about how this disease spreads, the general lack of testing, epidemiological data and the stay-at-home order, providing the personal names of cases exceeds the minimum information needed to protect law enforcement,” the health department added.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office argued at the time that they did not have enough personal protection equipment to utilize the appropriate level of precaution during every interaction with the public.


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