PA projector is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive / The Patriot-News, TribLIVE / Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Department of Health is working to hire a new company on an even more expensive contract to resume its contact tracing program after firing the previous company in May for a data breach mass that was still unsecured in June and led to a lawsuit.
On June 23, the state’s Department of General Services approved the Department of Health’s request for a one-year, $ 34 million contract with Boston-based Public Consulting Group, LLC through an emergency purchase – a system that allows state agencies to bypass normal tendering practices to obtain supplies or services quickly in an emergency.
During the pandemic, the health department used the process to purchase everything from flu shots to supplies such as pipette tips to perform COVID-19 lab tests, as well as to enter into consulting contracts to donate. advice on the deployment of the coronavirus vaccine.
It was also used last July to hire Insight Global, the Atlanta-based company recently fired by the Department of Health for failing to secure personal information collected as staff contacted people potentially exposed to the virus. This contract was initially estimated at $ 25 million.
The contract with Public Consulting Group, LLC was not finalized on Thursday.
Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) criticized the department’s lack of transparency while pursuing the new hire and asked why the department had not first answered questions about the Insight Global breach.
“I firmly believe that instead of repeating the mistakes of the past – that is, entering into an emergency contract with an out-of-state supplier – it would be prudent to put the brakes on, and I think that the Department of Health must balance things out. with the people of Pennsylvania, ”said Phillips-Hill, chair of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee.
The department selected Public Consulting Group, indicates the emergency procurement demand, due to the company’s track record of contact tracing in neighboring states and because it is already registered in procurement programs. government agencies that speed up recruitment.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the health ministry made the same argument used in the ministry’s emergency supply request.
“To avoid a failure in this essential public health service, it is imperative to immediately bring in a new supplier,” said the spokesperson. “The work done under this contract will have a direct impact on the number of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania. “
When asked if using the standard contracting process could have helped prevent the problems the department had with Insight Global, a spokesperson said that all of the health department’s contracts, “regardless of the purchasing process, contain strict information security and confidentiality provisions.
“The department continues to work with all current and future vendors to ensure that all privacy and security protocols are strictly adhered to,” the statement said.
Public Consulting Group did not respond to a request for comment.
Pennsylvania, like many other states, had to quickly step up contact tracing at the start of the pandemic. In June 2020, public health experts estimated the state needed 2,000 to 4,000 contact tracers.
Although state and local health departments have staff available to do this type of work – agencies nationwide regularly use contact tracing to contain small, localized epidemics of diseases like Ebola, HIV or mumps and measles – they didn’t have the resources to deal with COVID-19, which spread quickly and easily, said Chrysan Cronin, director and professor of public health at Muhlenberg College.
Last year, when the state was still reeling from the first four months of the pandemic and bracing for an expected drop in cases, it made sense to outsource the work, Cronin said.
As Spotlight PA reported last spring, Pennsylvania for decades reduced the number of public health nurses it employed to conduct contact tracing until only a few were left. ‘a reduced workforce. The state health ministry employed only 131 people in this position as of April 2020, up from 177 nurses in 2012.
The department hired Insight Global in July to recruit and train 1,000 contact tracing employees.
“This project will strengthen and diversify our public health workforce while coordinating and mobilizing efforts to overcome any potential increase in COVID-19 cases,” former Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in a statement to the era.
But at the end of April this year, the Department of Health and Insight Global acknowledged that the names, dates of birth, counties of residence and personal health details of 72,000 people interviewed during the contact tracing process had been exposed in line. The information was stored in Google Drive documents used by Insight Global employees, but was visible to anyone with a link.
The Phillips-Hill committee held a hearing on May 11 to investigate the violation. Health ministry officials were scheduled to attend, but were canceled after a woman in Allegheny County affected by the violation filed a federal complaint. The lawsuit alleges the Department of Health and Insight Global had known about the security breach for months but did nothing to stop it.
Then in June, despite promises that all data had been secure, Spotlight PA reported that a Google document identifying 66 people, many of them minors, was still online. Two days later, an Insight Global lawyer called on current and former employees to help him locate and secure the documents.
Phillips-Hill asked Monday how Public Consulting Group would collect and secure the data. She also wanted to know how the Department of Health justified a one-year contract as COVID-19 cases continue to decline.
When asked in June what the department was learning about the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing, officials said the program “is less about collecting data than slowing the spread of a virus by asking residents who have been exposed to isolate or quarantine themselves from others based on their level of exposure.
They estimated that for every person contacted, an additional two to 10 cases are prevented, but did not provide data to support this.
According to the Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator built by the George Washington Institute for Health Workforce Equity – which takes into account factors such as the number of cases over 14 days – Pennsylvania still needs 1,954 contact tracers.
About 1,200 contact tracers, some of them employed by Insight Global, were working statewide until mid-June, according to a report from the state’s health department released on June 16.
The contract with Insight Global ended on June 18. Health ministry officials said investigations into the cases would be handled by 140 community health nurses and 50 National Guard members through mid-July as the state shifts to a new program to find the cases. contacts.
The future of the program
Department of Health officials declined to answer Spotlight PA’s questions about how many people will be hired under the new contact tracing provider and what factors related to the future of the pandemic have been taken into account. when the department has made the emergency supply request.
Even as the state relaxes mitigation protocols such as masking requirements – which were lifted statewide on June 28 – there are no plans to end the contact tracing program as long as cases of COVID-19 are being reported in Pennsylvania, health officials told Spotlight PA in June.
As of Thursday, only one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had seen an increase in the number of cases in the past two weeks, according to state data compiled by Spotlight PA. There have been a total of 1.2 million cases of COVID-19 in the state since March 2020.
Cronin, professor of public health at Muhlenberg, questioned whether Pennsylvania had enough data to determine whether the contact tracing program in its current form was still necessary.
“It’s a lot of money when you’re not sure you’ve made a difference,” Cronin said of the new contract’s cost estimate.
Maintaining a contact tracing program could help manage spikes in COVID-19 cases as mitigation measures lift, said Catherine Haggerty, epidemiologist at the University’s Graduate School of Public Health. of Pittsburgh.
It could also help monitor outbreaks in vulnerable groups and those who are not eligible for vaccination, such as children under 12.
“Immunization rates, while they are on the rise and things look encouraging, are definitely not 100%,” Haggerty said. “Containment efforts which include quarantining close contacts, isolation of cases continue to be of critical importance. Now is not the time to let our guard down.
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that will continue with contact tracing, even as cases decline and vaccination rates rise, according to a national state health service survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the NPR in May.
Of the 36 states that responded, 29 indicated that contact tracing would continue at existing levels and receive similar resources, according to the survey results, while only four states – Arizona, California, Maine and Oregon – have indicated they plan to hire more contact tracers.
Six others reported that contact tracing “will continue, but be downgraded”.
WHILE YOU ARE HERE … If you learned anything from this story pay for it and become a member of PA projector so that someone else can in the future to projectorpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.