What Does Contact Tracing Mean, Anyway?

There hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion as to the practicalities of this “contact tracing” business which is part and parcel of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ agreement to (partially) end the shutdown of Louisiana’s economy.

That’s probably about to change. Most people don’t really know what’s meant by contact tracing.

From a message going around the internet…

Dear friends…Based on the Contact Tracing Training I went through, I want to warn you that once they start testing the masses, Contact Tracing will be in full force.

If you are found to be a person who has come into close contact with an infected individual during their infectious time period such that you are suspected to have contracted the virus, you will be asked to voluntarily quarantine yourself inside your home, without leaving, for a full 2 weeks. No grocery runs for any reasons. The only reason you’ll be excused from your home is to go to the doctor. If you are unabe to self-quarantine, your case will be elevated to a supervisor, so I would highly suggest you play nice and cooperate with instructions if you want to be left alone in the luxury of your own home with your family.

What defines whether or not you are considered possibly infected?….

1. If you are in the same building with someone who has tested positive for 1 hour or more.
2. If you are face to face within 6 feet of an infected person for a minimum of 10 minutes
3. All persons who live in the home of the infected individual.

As you can see, this will have huge consequences. A person is considered contageous 2 days before symptoms even present. So a contact tracer will be asking for everyone who the infected person has been in close contact with starting with that time period and during the time of obvious infection.

Is that overblown? Check out this Twitter thread from Michael Kim, an American in South Korea.

Then there is what’s going on in New York, where a man with a cold refused to self-quarantine…

Rochester City News reports Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies placed the individual in isolation at a Brighton, N.Y., jail after a civil order was imposed by the Monroe County Department of Public Health. The unnamed person was reportedly displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19 but refused testing and ignored an order to isolate themselves Thursday.

“The Monroe County Public Health Department has determined the individual’s non-compliance with a health order of isolation endangers safety, health, and well-being of citizens in Monroe County,” the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “The individual was given multiple opportunities to comply with the Health Department order.”

According to WHAM, the person was taken by specially-trained deputies to Strong Memorial Hospital for evaluation, and then moved to a pre-planned quarantine location at the Sheriff’s Office Brighton Facility on Friday. Other inmates at the Brighton jail were moved to a secure area at the Monroe County Jail, where no cases of COVID-19 have been reported.

“You know, I’ve been a police officer for almost 35 years. I’ve never even dreamed about doing something like this,” Sheriff Todd Baxter told the TV station.

But participating in this kind of thing is the new hotness, according to CBS News

As U.S. unemployment soars to historic levels, the hottest job of the year could be a lifesaver: contact tracing. Containing the coronavirus as the economy gradually reopens has created an urgent need for hundreds of thousands of people trained to identify infected individuals and track down anyone and everyone they could have exposed to the virus.

In the absence of a federal plan, some city and state health departments are already seeking to fill thousands of these positions. Experts estimate that between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers — who can earn up to $65,000 per year — will be needed nationwide based on state populations and projected COVID-19 infection rates.

“I do think that it’s a fantastic job for people who have been furloughed, and it’s something that people can be trained to do,” said Roger Shapiro, a professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It takes some training, but it’s not impossible to train almost anybody with reasonable social skills, who can work off a script, begin a conversation with people, convey a few key messages and collect data,” he said.

Will Louisiana’s contact tracing regime reach a New York or South Korea level of awful? It’s unlikely, but far too early to say. Edwards’ plan includes lots of the above elements

The state’s plan considers people who have been in close contact with someone if they are:

  • Household members of the person who tested positive
  • Intimate partners of the person who tested positive
  • People who have provided care to you in the household or outside
  • Anyone who has been in close contact – that is defined as someone who has been within six feet or closer for a time period greater than 15 minutes

Dr. Alex Billioux, the Assistant Secretary of Health for the Louisiana Department of Public Health, said that aggressive contact tracing is crucial to allowing the state to reopen safely.

Billioux said that contact tracers would be asking someone who tested positive to give them a list of people they have come in contact with and where they have been.

When someone is contacted they will be told that they have been identified as someone who may have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. They will not be given a name.

At that time, the person who is contacted will be asked to be tested and isolated if positive and quarantined if they are not positive.

“If you are contacted, we need you to take that seriously or we won’t be able to contain the spread of the virus,” said Billioux.

Got that? If the governor’s army of Wuhan Gestapo grabs a hold of you by phone, even if you get tested and you’re negative for the virus they’re going to want to quarantine you.

By what force this would be done, we’re not sure. Edwards’ camp says the isolations and quarantines will be voluntary. Nobody seems to believe that.

But word that the Edwards administration hired nearly 300 contact tracers on top of 70 already employed — and could eventually build up to 700 disease detectives to track the virus — quickly raised concerns about collecting personal medical information and spreading it improperly.

Rep. Raymond Crews, a Shreveport Republican, told health care officials he’s heard a lot of reluctance to contact tracing from people who “put a big, big premium on liberty.”

“My constituents are very leery. They think it opens a Pandora’s box and it’s going to be very scary,” Crews said.

Realizing that widespread reluctance to respond to contact tracers could hamper Louisiana’s efforts to contain the virus, Edwards has appealed to people to be “good neighbors” by participating.

The Democratic governor said people who test positive for the coronavirus will be asked to identify people they recently came into close contact with for 15 minutes or more. A contact tracer, working from home, will call those people and tell them they should get tested if they’re symptomatic and should isolate for 14 days even if they’re not showing symptoms.

“You can rest assured that your information will remain confidential,” Edwards said.

Billioux stressed the contact tracers will follow federal laws for protecting personal health information. He said the information collected is held in a private system similar to those used by hospitals to store health data.

“We’re not revealing any details of the individual that they came into contact with,” Billioux said.

If you can’t see the potential for this to be abused, you are not paying attention.

What if somebody tests positive for the virus and decides to use that as a weapon? They rat on people they dislike, business competitors and so forth by telling the contact tracers they’ve been with those people, and then the protocol kicks in and shuts down the lives of the people they’ve ratted on. For no good reason those folks can’t go to work, can’t attend a wedding, can’t see their friends. Even if they don’t have the virus.

Will there be an appeal process to these quarantine orders? What happens if people refuse to voluntarily quarantine or isolate?

And does anybody think Edwards’ army of 700 $14-an-hour contact tracers will be able to manage 4.6 million potential cases of the virus without turning the whole thing into a complete mess?

Earlier today, Royal Alexander had a really good post here at the site stressing the importance of a full reopening of the economy post haste. This impending contact tracing train wreck is a good reason why he’s right. Louisiana’s state government is not capable of managing this process without major damage to civil liberties, colossally inaccurate records and mass confusion. They can’t even announce the plan without mass confusion.

And while every news report about contact tracing assures that “public health experts say” it’s crucial to managing the spread of COVID-19, that is laughable. It would have been crucial to managing the spread of the virus six months ago. But when antibody testing shows that people all over the country had the virus in January or even December of last year, before there was even a response to it at all, this horse is well out of the barn.

And no, technology doesn’t help. In Iceland, where the government created an app to manage contact tracing for a country of 364,000 people, the technology was largely worthless and “manual” tracing helped to stop the spread.

Iceland is not the United States.

We hope we’re wrong about this, but we’re rarely wrong in projecting a disaster where it comes to state government in Louisiana. It would be a really good time for Louisiana’s legislature to flex some muscle and put an end to Edwards’ emergency before it metastasizes into a fresh round of idiocy on top of the damage already done.

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