LULAC of Illinois, part of the largest and oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States, wants to represent the voice of its members from McHenry County in a lawsuit that will determine whether private medical information about residents will be shared by the County public health department with law enforcement. LULAC told the Circuit Court of McHenry County in a filing earlier this week that the release of names and addresses of people who test positive for COVID-19 will undermine the basic precepts of public health, and have a dangerous and stigmatizing impact on members of the Hispanic community, discouraging many in McHenry County from seeking testing and treatment in the midst of the pandemic.
The organization is seeking to intervene in two lawsuits filed by police agencies in McHenry County that demand the County’s public health officials turn over information about positive COVID tests.
A judge earlier sided with the law enforcement agencies, and the McHenry County Health Department has asked the court to reconsider its ruling. LULAC opposes the release of personal medical information as violative of its members’ rights to keep their health information private, and as ultimately harmful – not helpful - to the health interests the first responders claim to advance. A brief submitted with LULAC’s filing calls this release of information “dangerous” and notes: “LULAC has worked to build trust between vulnerable immigrant communities and the Health Department in order to improve the health of the Latino community in McHenry County. The release of names and addresses of people by the Health Department to law enforcement is a breach of that trust.”
LULAC is being represented in this action by lawyers from the ACLU of Illinois.
LULAC fears that many of its members will avoid seeking health care, including testing for COVID, if they know their names and addresses will be turned over to law enforcement if they test positive.
“Undocumented families and families with mixed immigration status – with U.S. citizens, legal residents and undocumented individuals all under the same roof – already live in fear a loved one being swept up by the Trump Administration and fast-tracked for deportation,” added Maggie Rivera of LULAC Illinois and a McHenry County resident. “This is exacerbated by the self-defeating efforts of McHenry police officers who want to create an ineffective list for misguided purposes.”
The filing argues that the release of information about those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 violates state and federal constitutional privacy protections as well as state public health laws.
Public health officials oppose the sharing of this information as well – the Illinois Department of Public Health urges that first responders treat every member of the public as potentially infectious given the continued challenges with testing and the fact that many people are most contagious in the days before they suspect they may have the virus and can be tested. Moreover, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines advise first responder dispatchers to pose questions to those seeking EMS services to assess specific risks associated with responding to that call.
Information specific to each first response call provides much more protection than a list that likely contains the names of people who no longer are contagious and omits the names of many who are. Public health experts also note that protecting the confidentiality of medical information is essential to ensuring that people access needed medical care for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
“Sharing personal medical information for those infected with the virus with law enforcement stands in stark contrast to good public health policy and effective public health practice” says Colleen K. Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois. “The pathway out of this pandemic is not through shortcuts and simple solutions. We should respect the personal medical privacy of our neighbors and continue our support for policies that will encourage people to get tested and to help us stem the spread of the disease.”
“Many of our members come from countries and backgrounds where being on a government list is an invitation for stigmatization and discrimination,” added Rivera of the LULAC. “Being in the United States was supposed to be the end of this sort of behavior, not a continuation. A global pandemic should be a time to put aside this self-defeating idea and seek the public health. Law enforcement in McHenry County needs to hear that message.”
A Cook County court recently rejected a similar effort by first responders in that jurisdiction.