Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, first responders have faced a greater likelihood of exposure to the virus. In fact, in April, two police unions representing Erie County law enforcement officers sued because officers didn’t have access to information about the COVID-19 status of those they interact with in 911 calls. On Friday, May 22, Erie County Judge John J. Mead ruled that police now can have access to the COVID-19 status of suspects they arrest.
The unions wanted ruling to go further – to require that the Erie County health department release the names of COVID-19-positive residents to the 911 service. Still, law enforcement officers still are pleased with the ruling. The police unions wanted officers to have more information about residents they come in close contact with. Also, now police will know if someone arrested has broken a mandated quarantine and should be isolated after an arrest.
The two unions that filed the lawsuit are Erie Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7 and FOP William Tyler Memorial Lodge No. 64. Erie lawyer Chad Vilushis represented Lodge No. 7 in the lawsuit. Lawyer Anthony Himes represented Lodge No. 64.
Weighing the right to privacy vs. public health interests
The ruling centered on weighing the right to someone’s privacy vs. the need to protect public health, including the health of officers responding to criminal activities. Beforehand, police only had access to addresses where someone had tested positive for coronavirus, not who exactly was battling the virus at that address.
Judge Mead ruled that if police arrest someone, the person’s privacy isn’t violated if officers know their suspect has COVID-19. The police must not release that information to the public though.
The lawsuit stemmed from an incident where a Wesleyville patrolman received a call about a potential COVID-19 patient who had left self-isolation. The officer couldn’t confirm if this person actually had tested positive for coronavirus though. She spent a night in jail before he could confirm she was positive with the virus.
The only reason the Wesleyville officer suspected she had COVID-19 was that he received that information from the person who had reported her violating self-quarantine. Now, officers facing a similar situation quickly can find out if someone they arrest has the virus, further protecting their health and the health of others in county jail.