If you've been following the routine coronavirus news briefings at the Winnebago County Health Department, you may have noticed there's a debate swirling in lockstep with the horrible virus.
How should local government juggle the public’s right to information during a public health crisis while not causing a panic and simultaneously protect individuals' right to privacy?
There are more than 90 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Winnebago County. Health Department Administrator Sandra Martell has held news briefings alongside Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara and County Board Chairman Frank Haney two or three times a week for the past month to keep the public abreast of all things COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus that had killed seven county residents as of Friday. The health department website — wchd.org — is updated daily with coronavirus data.
Predictive modeling shows that, for now at least, the disease will peak in Winnebago County in late April or early May and that we'll have ample hospital beds, critical care beds and ventilators to care for sick patients. That's assuming, of course, that no more than 20% of county residents get sick with COVID-19 and that we all stay home and practice social distancing when buying groceries or making an “essential” trip.
Martell has shared granular details about the county's COVID-19 cases, too. For example, the racial breakdown among those who have tested positive: 58% white, 24% black and 18% Hispanic. She has not disclosed, however, how many of Winnebago County's COVID-19 cases are men or women or where they live, as health departments in Chicago and in Cook, Lake, Will, Kane and DuPage counties have done.
Public health officials initially refrained from publicizing city-level COVID-19 data in Will County because there weren't many people there who had contracted the disease and privacy concerns were top of mind.
“People were screaming: 'Name the city, name the city.' And it got kind of testy,” said Steve Brandy, public information officer for the Will County Health Department. “But soon, there were lots of cases all over the county. Our position became: Look, this stuff is everywhere. It's not like there's an iron curtain or fence separating Joliet from Lockport or Bolingbrook.”
Will County officials took note that other health departments in the Chicago area were disclosing city-level COVID-19 data, Brandy said. The county's decision to follow suit made more sense when the Illinois Department of Public Health published an interactive map on its website that identifies the number of COVID-19 cases in every Illinois county and in every ZIP Code, provided there are at least five cases in the ZIP Code. As of Friday, the state's map showed only 52 cases within seven Rockford-area ZIP Codes, far fewer than the 90-plus cases that Winnebago County has reported.
For now, Martell said, she sees no value in sharing a city-by-city breakdown of COVID-19 cases in Winnebago County. Residents should stay at home and behave "as if the virus is everywhere in our community," she said. "... At this particular moment we have made a commitment amongst our elected officials and our community that we will not be talking about city of residence."
If the department did report such data, Martell said, “are you going to behave any differently in that community than you would in general?”
Haney said he's open to disclosing more COVID-19 information. Haney pledged to make county government more transparent when he campaigned for chairman in 2016.
“Not sharing the city-by-city breakdown — is that the right approach?” Haney said. “I think what we've seen is an honest attempt to share information with the community. Is that something we could take another look at? Absolutely."
The public needs to stay educated amid the pandemic and public health officials must balance transparency and privacy, said Beth Squires, coordinator of the public health program at the Northern Illinois University College of Health and Human Sciences.
“It's sometimes going to be hard to find that balance — to determine what's enough information to disclose to maintain trust and what's enough to cause panic," Squires said. "It's a fine line.”
McNamara said he agrees with the approach of withholding city-level pandemic data. First Ward Alderman Tim Durkee, a physician, takes the opposite view. No one's medical privacy would be compromised by disclosing, for example, how many COVID-19 cases there are in Rockford or Loves Park or South Beloit, Durkee said.
“Data should be transparent,” he said. “We are not talking about nuclear weapon strategy here. Citizens of communities need to know if they are being effective or not. ...Good data helps assuage unfounded fears."
Isaac Guerrero: email@example.com; @isaac_rrs