Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle vetoed a resolution that would have allowed 9-1-1 dispatchers to share the addresses of people with COVID-19 with first responders in suburban Cook County; she said she was following experts' advice that it was functionally meaningless to the responders' safety and that it would further stigmatize the communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The veto was the first of her 10-year administration. In an interview, Preckwinkle said her experts told her that the coronavirus is ubiquitous and the idea that first responders could be protected by knowing the addresses of people with COVID-19 is "nuts," because of asymptomatic carriers or those suffering from mild symptoms.
"You should assume that whenever you go out on a run or a call or go to an event, if you're a first responder, that there are people there who have COVID-19," she said. "That's the only way to reasonably protect yourself."
Secondly, allowing first responders to know in advance that the people they are going to treat "can lead to some very bad outcomes," Preckwinkle said. She compared COVID-19 to other communicable diseases like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, asking, "If we don't give first responders the addresses of people who were impacted by any of those illnesses, then why should this pandemic be any different?"
"I think that commissioners were pressured by first responders, police and firefighters, who like all the rest of us are worried and anxious," she said. "While some of us have the privilege of being home and sheltering in place, they're out serving all of us, so I can understand their fears, but they've got to protect themselves whenever they encounter the public. They can't lull themselves into thinking that having this kind of information is going to somehow protect them from the virus, because as I said, the virus is everywhere."
Commissioner Bill Lowry (D-3rd), Hyde Park-Kenwood's representative in county government, voted present on the resolution, explaining in a statement that he had a conflict of interest in the matter. Multiple attempts to reach him and his office about the substance of that conflict were unsuccessful.
"I am truly grateful for our first responders in Cook County, and during this time, our office is dedicating effort toward the 3rd District Support Fund — an initiative delivering meals to first responders at hospitals across the 3rd District," he said in a statement issued to the Herald.
"Regarding the recent vote to provide COVID-19 data to law enforcement and first responders, it will always be my intention to maintain the ethical standards our Cook County voters expect and deserve," he continued. "My belief was that this measure would create an opportunity for disparate impact, as well as a violation of privacy rights, and I expressed those concerns during the board meeting.”
Preckwinkle has been vocal about racial disparities in government services, especially the rendering of law enforcement, throughout her career. In April, she told the Herald that the decrease in the number of people the Chicago Police Department was arresting was a good thing.
"We live in a country where racism in endemic, where Black and Brown communities suffer tremendous discrimination, and what makes anyone think that providing this information to first responders is somehow going to make them immune to rampant racism and discrimination?" she asked. "That leads to bad outcomes to Black and Brown people, and particularly in the Latinx community, where there are fears, based on documentation status, of the police.
"This only magnifies the concerns, and it makes it less likely that people will come in and get treatment when they desperately need it."
COVID-19 deaths among Black and Hispanic Chicagoans are three times that of White people, as people of color are more likely to have diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and asthma.
Climate scientists are predicting that Chicago will experience a hot summer. The Census Bureau finds that a third of Americans are suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression. More people are out of work than any time since the Great Depression, and the nation is experiencing the worst public health crisis in a century. "Essential" employees have gone into dangerous workplaces for minimum wage jobs.
In Cook County, there have been more deaths as of last week in 2020 than there were in all of 2019 — including 900 opioid-related deaths and 254 murders, both of which are occurring at higher rates than last year. Throughout her time as an alderman, Preckwinkle said she has prayed for cool, rainy summers, "to keep people indoors and not fussing with each other or the police."
"If we have a hot summer as opposed to a cold and rainy one at a time when anxiety levels are really high and we've decided that it's essential to keep our liquor stores and our cannabis shops open and not our bookstores, it's going to be pretty difficult," she said. "The behavioral impacts of anxiety and the frustration of sheltering in place and the loss of employment are tremendous, and that leads people to behave badly as well."
She fears a repeat of what happened in Wisconsin, where people gathered in bars without social distancing and face masks immediately after a judge threw out the governor's stay-at-home order. Seeing people not wearing masks while she walks her dog in Hyde Park concerns her.
Her administration's modeling of the pandemic predicts a rebound of COVID-19 in November, with a plateau rather than a decline. The danger is that the sustained rates of infections and deaths will be higher than they were during the first wave.
"What the trough is is really important," she said. "We've been on a downward curve — how far are we going to get? Or are we just going to plateau at some unknown level and then uptick again in the fall?"
Asked for words to steel constituents for the future, Preckwinkle repeated what she told the Herald in April, that African Americans lived through 250 years of slavery and 100 years of subsequent brutal oppression.
"We have survived worse as a people, survived and triumphed," she said. "What I would say to every American is that we have to pray for the strength to deal with this crisis with courage and grace."
She recalled Corita Kent, a Catholic nun and artist known for her social justice-oriented screen printing in the 1960s and '70s.
"Her advice was, don't pray for an easy life. Pray for strength."