Coronavirus Illinois: First responders want to know if routine police and fire calls involve COVID-19 victims

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Illinois men and women who serve and protect want to make sure that they are protected while serving during this time of pandemic illness. First responders say they need to know whether a call for service may be an encounter with someone infected by COVID-19. Now, the I-Team has learned that police officials have asked Governor JB Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul for emergency authorization that would allow heath officials to provide the addresses of confirmed coronavirus patients.

"Just the address is all we're asking for so our personnel are ready to respond properly and also protect themselves and their families," said Chief Tom Weitzel in west suburban Riverside. "I can tell you that the Cook County Department of Public Health has not been responsive," Weitzel said in an interview with the I-Team. "The Attorney General of Illinois gave an opinion that that information can be released during the pandemic only. And that's all we're asking."

A spokesperson for the Attorney General told the I-Team that their office "has had conversations with state's attorneys and law enforcement related to protecting first responders while also ensuring patient privacy, and we have shared HIPAA guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights."

"I've talked to many west suburban police chiefs, both in Cook County and DuPage and they're frustrated we're not getting accurate information," said Chief Weitzel.

Federal HIPAA law allows for the release of personal health information to law enforcement for prevention for a "serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of an individual or the public."

Riverside authorities have now sent an urgent letter to Gov. Pritzker asking for immediate access to COVID-19 addresses during the pandemic to "provide a safe environment for our officers and firefighters."

Cook County Department of Public Health officials told the I-Team they follow the "state guidance with regard to matters surrounding notification" ... guidance they received late Wednesday.

The new two page IDPH memo advises first responders and law enforcement to "take appropriate protective precautions when responding to all calls," writing that providing the identity of COVID-19 positive individuals "has limited epidemiological and infection control value and therefore IDPH does not recommend notification to law enforcement of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19."

CLICK HERE to read the IDPH memo

Some U.S. law enforcement agencies have also told personnel to treat every call for service as if it involves potential COVID-19 exposure.

"That information is very important to us as we respond to these residents it's an added layer of protection for the first responders who respond there. It gives us the opportunity to utilize additional PPE which is personal protective equipment, as well as being able to treat the patient properly when they come out, usually when these people are under home quarantine," said Riverside Fire Chief and Emergency Managment Director Matthew Buckley.

Right now Riverside officials say they are depending on the honor system in potentially life or death encounters with residents who may be infected.

"We're relying on the caller correct to give proper and good information to our dispatch center who then relays it to the responders that are going to that residence," said Chief Buckley.
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