McHenry County Health Department Ordered by the Court to Disclose COVID-19 Patients’ Names to First Responders

The Illinois McHenry County Health Department refused to give 911 dispatchers the names of COVID-19 patients because of patient privacy protection, just like what they used to do with all patients who might have other infectious diseases including hepatitis and HIV.

According to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPAA) Privacy Rule, PHI can be disclosed to police officers, paramedics, and 911 dispatchers in certain cases. In March 24, 2020, the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights presented a guidance document with the title COVID-19 and HIPAA: Disclosures to law enforcement, paramedics, other first responders and public health authorities.

It was spelled out in the guidance that the HIPAA gives covered county health department permission to disclose PHI to a police official or other people who might be exposed to somebody who is COVID-19 positive so as to avert or control being infected with COVID-19, per 45 CFR 164.512(b)(1)(iv). OCR moreover mentioned that it is essential that first responders know PHI like patient names to evade or lessen a serious and upcoming threat to a person or the public’s health and protection.

Though the disclosures are allowed, the County Health department noted on Friday that it would still not disclose any data considering that it is a violation of patient privacy and to avoid giving first responders a false sense of security. First responders ought to reckon that the man or woman residing in the house they go into is COVID-19 positive and could possibly infect others. The Country Health Department suggested that first responders should have the same precautions as when having other public interactions.

The MCDH expressed its professional public health opinion and said that with the knowledge of how the disease spreads, the lack of testing, epidemiological information and the stay-at-home set up, providing the personal names of patients is over and above the minimum information required to protect police officers.

A few law enforcement agencies established in McHenry County filed a case to pressure the County Health Department to provide the data for the sake of the protection of first responders. MCDH is presently confronted with two lawsuits, the first case was on behalf of the four police departments in the County. The County Sheriff’s office filed the second case. In the lawsuit, the police department wants the MCDH to disclose the data to the the McHenry County Emergency Telephone System Board so that the responding officers would get an alert if there is a need to take more protective steps. The County Sheriff asserted in its lawsuit that responders are unable to take the same safety measures in all community interactions since there is not ample personal protective equipment available.

The court granted a temporary order prompting MCDH to provide the data. The ruling mentioned that by giving the names helps police officials to perform their job properly and keep the community safe.

As a result of the court order, MCDH will be providing to dispatchers the patient names when requested, albeit on a case-to-case basis. The tightest control will be implemented by MCDH when disclosing information to keep patient privacy protected.

Elizabeth Hernandez

Elizabeth Hernandez is the editor of HIPAA News section of HIPAA Coach and an experienced journalist in the healthcare sector. She specializes in healthcare and HIPAA compliance, making her a go-to source for information on healthcare regulations. Her work focuses on the importance of patient privacy and secure information handling. Elizabeth also has a postgraduate degree in journalism. Follow on Twitter: You can follow Elizabeth on twitter at https://twitter.com/ElizabethHzone