County's COVID-19 website here today, gone tomorrow

Last week, the online data portal suddenly stopped working for a day

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

The number of COVID-19 cases in many suburbs is rising rapidly, but residents last week had a hard time accessing the Cook County Department of Public Health's COVID-19 Surveillance Data portal, which is the best tool for tracking confirmed cases within individual suburbs. 

After apparently going dark for a day, the site was back running on Sunday, albeit with multiple reports of people getting disconnected from the server. As of March 30, the website reported 16 cases of COVID-19 in Forest Park.

Interviews with at least five suburban and county elected officials reveal a cloud of confusion surrounding the data portal's sudden disappearance on March 27. Deepening the confusion is the silence of Cook County health department officials, who have not responded to multiple questions about the quiet origins and sudden disappearance of such a critically important source of information.

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 at that point.

Both the sudden knowledge that there could be COVID-19 cases in their suburb and the fact that there existed a tool for knowing that information in the first place surprised 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 Rory 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 did not respond to multiple attempts to reach them for comment about the website.

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 30, Oak Park had 30 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 is 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. Hours after that interview with Johnson on Sunday, the website was operational again.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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