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COVID-19 case-tracking website abruptly pulled

County mum on mysterious disappearance of site with data specific to suburbs

March 29th, 2020 5:21 PM

Updated: Mar. 31st, 2020 8:24 AM

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

UPDATE: Tuesday, March 31 at 8:22 a.m.

The Cook Count Department of Public Health website appears to be up and running again.

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The daily update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has become something of a ritual across the country, with many Illinois residents, in particular, relying on the Illinois Department of Public Health's daily tally of positive COVID-19 cases, deaths and total people tested.

That information, however, doesn't go deeper than the county level. Suburban residents who depend on the Cook County Department of Public Health for more detailed information on the number of confirmed cases in their communities were left scratching their heads until news broke on March 26 that a website apparently created by the department shared exactly those details.

The next day, the website was no longer available, leaving many people once again in the dark.

Interviews with at least five suburban and county elected officials reveal a cloud of confusion surrounding the website's very existence and sudden disappearance. Deepening the confusion is the silence of Cook County health department officials, who have not responded to multiple questions about the quiet origins (the website was never publicized on the department's website or social media accounts and was not easily accessible) and sudden disappearance of such a critically important source of information.

The website — ccdphcd.shinyapps.io/covid19 — showed data of all confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to the Cook County Department of Public Health, which has jurisdiction over all suburbs and parts of suburbs within the Cook County, except for Chicago, Evanston, Oak Park, Skokie and Stickney Township. Those municipalities have their own state-certified local health departments.

As of March 26, there were a total of 650 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in suburban Cook County and seven deaths, according the department's data.

The numbers were at odds with data from suburban officials like Maywood Village Manager Willie Norfleet Jr., who had been keeping a tally of all confirmed COVID-19 cases that the village's fire department reported to him. As of March 26, according to Norflect's count, Maywood had four confirmed cases, but the website showed six up that point.

In other suburbs, where residents had not been seeing any reports at all, the information must have been particularly alarming. The website showed that Bellwood had eight cases as of March 26 and an infection rate of nearly 42 per 100,000 residents -- one of the highest rates of infection in west suburban region. Up until that point, however, Bellwood village officials had not announced any local cases in their town.

And the lack of hyper-local information about COVID-19 cases is not necessarily due to a lack of effort on the part of local elected officials.

Both the sudden knowledge that there could be COVID-19 cases in their suburbs and the fact that there existed a tool for knowing that information in the first place surprised elected officials like Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian, who told the Forest Park Review in an interview on March 26 that he didn't know anything about the information despite asking the county for it.

"Village staff is working with the county to verify the information provided," said Gillian, who added that he learned about the website from an article published March 26 by Village Free Press. "This information was not shared with the village despite repeated attempts to get verified and detailed information from Cook County."

"I'm glad we have this information," said Forest Park Mayor Hoskins in an interview on March 27. "We spent time on Wednesday asking the county how we could get it, and regardless of how it came out, we have the information we need."

As of March 29, Forest Park officials still had not received confirmation from the county. Hoskins said during an interview on March 28 that the only communication regarding the website he's received came from a public health department official who said that a department liaison was not authorized to confirm the numbers of COVID cases in each suburb.

The Riverside-Brookfield Landmark, one of four local newspapers owned by Growing Community Media, first broke the news about the website's existence on March 26. That same day, reports about the website were also published in the Forest Park Review, another Growing Community Media weekly, and Village Free Press, a weekly newspaper published in partnership with Growing Community Media.

The three articles published on the newspapers' respective websites had garnered more than 75,000 page views by March 29, leading to speculation that the website's server may have been overwhelmed with traffic, since attempts to secure a connection to the site were increasingly difficult in the hours after the articles were published.

The Landmark's article about the website even caught the attention of David Bennett, the executive director of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, which represents 275 municipalities in the Chicago area, according to its website.

In a statement that the village of Westchester posted to its Facebook page on March 27, Bennett explained that he learned about the article from the village manager of south suburban Flossmoor. By the time Bennett tried accessing the website, it was already down, he said.

"I called [the county public health department] and have been told they are experiencing technical issues because of the volume of hits it is receiving as they are trying to input the latest data," Bennett wrote. "They say they are working as quickly as possible to return it to live."

Bennett added that "a number of municipal officials in our region have been requesting this type of information from their county [public health departments] for a while now. Granted it's not to the level of detail many want, but I respectfully suggest it's a step in the right direction."

County health department officials have not responded to multiple attempts to reach them for comment about the website, which does not appear to have been available on the department's main website — cookcountypublichhealth.org — which makes no mention of the data-rich website. Instead, the public is urged to call the Cook County COVID-19 Hotline, email CCDPH.COVID19@cookcountyhhs.org or text "ALERTCOOK" to 888-777, for the latest updates.

A call to the hotline was redirected to Kim Junius, the department's media spokesperson. Junius has not responded to multiple calls and emails. And the text alerts only provide county-level updates on COVID-19 cases.

The situation facing residents in suburbs without independent public health departments is stark in comparison to suburbs with their own public health departments and where the presence of regular COVID-19 updates could be spurring officials to act more decisively to slow the spread of the viral disease.

In Oak Park, the village's health department has collaborated with the village government to regularly announce COVID-19 cases. As of March 28, Oak Park had 21 confirmed cases. The village was also the first municipality in Illinois to issue a shelter-in-place order, a day before Pritzker announced a statewide order.

In Evanston, where the town's public health department had counted 67 cases as of March 29, the mayor has appointed a COVID-19 Task Force that "includes key members of the education, government, business, faith, nonprofit, health, and senior communities," according to the village's website.

For smaller municipalities without independent public health departments and regular COVID-19 updates, the county health department's data was a crucial source of information guiding local officials' decisions and helping to mobilize residents to take steps to protect themselves against the disease.

Ben Sells, the village president of Riverside, said he learned about the website from his local fire chief before area newspapers broke the news, but lauded the local media for bringing awareness to COVID-19's proliferation. He said that the reporting may have nudged people to comply with Gov. J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order, which prohibits all non-essential activities until at least April 7.

"I don't know why the site is down," Sells said on March 27. "The Riverside-Brookfield Landmark's reporting had a beneficial effect in our efforts to get people to adhere to the stay at home mandates.

"The worst thing people can be right now is complacent and think that they're in a location where there aren't any risks, so the press is critical to help manage this crisis and that report was very useful."

The website's sudden disappearance even confounded First District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, whose district includes Oak, Park, Forest Park, Maywood, a small portion of North Riverside and other west suburbs.

"I can't speak to why the website is no longer accessible," Johnson said in an interview on March 29. "If people found this information helpful that the county has provided and it's not available, then it's reasonable to ask why it isn't."

Johnson said that he plans on bringing the issue up to Dr. Terry Mason, the county public health department's chief operating officer, and William Barnes, the executive director of the county's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"The greatest weapon we have against this free-floating fear is knowledge, and I thought that [website] was a very useful tool for us," Sells said. "I hope they can restore it."

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