coronavirus

Illinois COVID-19 Outbreak List Is So Secret Even Local Officials Aren't Told Of Cases

A Lincolnshire restaurant outbreak was on the secret list reported by NBC 5 on Thursday

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One day after NBC 5 Investigates published the state of Illinois' secret list of thousands of COVID-19 outbreaks across the state, a stark reminder arose of just how confidential the data had become.

The list was first obtained by the Documenting Covid-19 Project at Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, in partnership with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The group received the list, apparently by mistake, in response to a public records request to a county health department.

It revealed thousands of virus outbreaks across the state, which resulted in the infections of over 43 thousand people. And many of those cases, involving smaller gatherings at prom parties, backyard barbecues, golf outings and gender reveal events, are exactly the kind of thing the state has been warning about for months.

But they have never revealed the very examples that would have helped make their case.

"As soon as we got this data, we thought we need to get this out there," said the Midwest Center's Sky Chadde. "Because it does provide good health information."

But an eagle-eyed viewer from Lincolnshire noted an ironic twist.

The Lake County community's mayor recently wrote a post, blasting Gov. J.B. Pritzker's new restaurant restrictions, declaring that "No COVID-19 cases have been traced to our restaurants over the past four months."

But right there on the secret list, was a Lincolnshire restaurant, Eddie Merlot's Steak and Seafood, where health officials said they had traced an outbreak in late August, which exposed at least 18 people and infected at least 9, according to the state's confidential spreadsheet.

(When NBC5 reached out twice to Eddie Merlot's, the individuals who answered the phone each said there was no comment.)

"I did not know about this," Mayor Elizabeth Brandt told NBC 5. "I absolutely would not have made (the statement) the way it was written."

Health officials confirmed to NBC 5 Investigates that they do not routinely inform local officials about incidents like the steakhouse case. Brandt says it's something she should have been made aware of.

"I'm frustrated because we were not given the information that you and NBC have uncovered on the secret list," she said. "It concerns me that the word secret is in there period, because I'm a big believer in transparency and being honest."

After NBC 5 contacted her, Brandt said she did some checking and was told the restaurant outbreak in her community involved a single party in a private room, and that no staffers had been infected.

She said while she was unhappy she wasn't told of the incident, it did not change her view that the restaurants in her community needed to remain open.

"I still stand by my position that I think we need indoor dining for restaurants and I think the action in punitive," she said. "Because we are below the threshold of 8 percent."

Brandt accused the governor of continuing to move the goalposts, and said she feared that the very survival of some of her community's restaurants was at stake. Plus, she notes that the food and beverage taxes are a major source of the village's revenue.

"Lincolnshire is 5.4 square miles," she said. "We have 23 restaurants."

Even as late as this week, state officials steadfastly refused to comment on NBC 5's questions about the secret outbreak list, citing confidentiality concerns, even though it contains no personal information about any individuals. Other jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, and the state health departments in Colorado and Kansas do release information on virus outbreak sites.

But on Wednesday, officials had a sudden change of heart, Pritzker announcing that outbreak information would be released, perhaps as early as next week.

Until then, you can search two sections of the state's secret list, which NBC 5 Investigates has posted in the two charts below.

Click here to see more work done by the Documenting Covid-19 Project at Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Click here to see the Brown Institute's main website. And click here to see the main website for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Search here for the latest stats on your town, zip code, county and more, on NBC5 Investigates' Coronavirus Tracker - updated daily.

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