Pa. court: County must tell police if arrestee has tested positive for COVID-19

Several police unions sued for the names of individuals infected with COVID-19, saying they needed to be able to protect themselves

Madeleine O'Neill
Erie Times-News

ERIE COUNTY, Pa. — Erie County police officers will be able check whether people they arrest are positive for COVID-19 under a new court ruling issued Friday.

In a 12-page decision, Erie County Judge John J. Mead ordered the Erie County Department of Health to confirm or deny whether an arrested person has tested positive for COVID-19 when asked by law enforcement.

Mead's ruling upends the county department of health's current practice of giving the addresses, but not the names, of COVID-19 patients to the 911 center.

The department argued in court that it had discretion over what information to release, and said it chose not to provide the names of COVID-19 patients to protect their privacy.

The police unions who sued for the names said they needed more information so they can protect themselves from patients with the virus, especially those who leave isolation.

Mead agreed that law enforcement needed more details to protect themselves.

"The court finds it could reasonably conclude that the (health department) is abusing its discretion by not providing petitioners access to the names," Mead wrote.

The county department of health has 72 hours to set up a hotline through which law enforcement can call and check names.

The unions sued for the release of the names on April 22. Under their request, the names of COVID-19 patients would not have been released to the public, but would have been provided to the county 911 center so dispatchers could alert first responders when a call involved one of the patients.

The police unions that sued for the names on April 22 are the Erie Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7, which represents 173 officers who work for the Erie Bureau of Police, and the FOP William Tyler Memorial Lodge No. 64, which represents about 200 police officers who work for Erie County police departments.

Erie lawyer Chad Vilushis represented Lodge No. 7 and lawyer Anthony Himes represented Lodge No. 64.

At a court hearing over the suit on May 13, the unions presented testimony from Erie police Chief Dan Spizarny, who said police often respond to situations that are not associated with a particular address, such as traffic stops.

A Wesleyville police patrolman also testified that on May 1, he received a complaint about a woman whom a caller described as being COVID-19 positive, but could not confirm the woman's status with the county 911 center.

The woman, who was positive for COVID-19, would be jailed later that day for repeatedly leaving mandatory isolation. An Erie County judge released her to electronic monitoring the next day, after finding that she had violated her agreement to remain isolated after her positive test result.

The unions argued that the case showed why they needed the names, and not just the addresses, of people with the disease.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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