A high-ranking Republican lawmaker running for state-wide post wants the next special session to end COVID-19 contact tracing, calling the practice an invasion of privacy.
Senator Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, suggested “stopping this search for specific contacts” at a meeting Monday of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations.
The Republican supermajority in both houses of the Kansas legislature forced Democratic Governor Laura Kelly to call a special session from November 22. Lawmakers are expected to debate proposals on mandate exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine and unemployment insurance for unvaccinated workers who lose their jobs, although additional measures may be proposed.
Tyson, who is running as state treasurer, said during and after the meeting that she would like legislation to remove COVID-19 contact tracing language from the last session’s appropriation bill. But she wondered if she herself would introduce a bill or an amendment.
“I’m not driving the ship for a special session so I can’t answer that,” Tyson said in response to a question from Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. “But I reached out to the leaders and let them know. I don’t think a majority of lawmakers… knew this was in a budget bill.”
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The budget bill gave the Kansas Department of Health and Environment the power to hire contact tracers and pass related regulations.
Among other provisions, the law requires that contact tracers meet the qualifications and training of the KDHE, take an oath, collect only certain data and inform people that participation in contact tracing is voluntary for both the individual infected and close contact.
It is not clear whether repealing the COVID-19 contact tracing provision as proposed by Tyson would end the practice. Instead, it could mean that contact tracing for COVID-19 would no longer have the tougher rules imposed by the legislature.
Committee chair, Representative Barbara Wasinger, R-Hays, questioned the need for specific COVID-19 regulations.
“I think at this point I would just like to ask, why is this necessary? ” she said. “You have contact tracing for many other issues, measles or smallpox, why are we making separate rules and regulations? … Why are we just adding more regulations and rules to confuse people? “
KDHE has regulations for COVID-19 contact tracing because that’s what the Appropriations Bill ordered the agency to do. The provisions were originally created during a special session in 2020.
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Agency officials said there were no regulations governing contact tracing for other infectious diseases.
Ahmed said the practice is usually carried out by local public health authorities, which works well with a small number of cases. But local officials have been overwhelmed by the large number of cases brought by the pandemic.
“If you still need contact tracers, you may just need to establish contact tracer regulations, instead of just for COVID,” Wasinger said. “With the change in COVID, it’s a virus, just like the flu. It’s not going to go away. We will have it forever. Thank you, unnamed country.”
‘Breach of privacy’
Asked by a reporter after the meeting whether her opposition is to COVID-19 contact tracing specifically or for all infectious diseases, Tyson said, “I do not support government contact tracing.”
“I know it was a problem when the governor was using our cell phones to track our activities during the COVID pandemic last year,” she said. “Voters and Kansans were rightly upset that they were stalking – the government – it is an invasion of privacy.
“It has to do with the federal government, the overreaching invasion of privacy with the federal government, trying to monitor bank accounts and financial institutions reporting your activity.”
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“It’s overwhelming,” Tyson said. “It is not what our country was founded on. It is not the premise of our nation.”
Contact tracers are public health workers who talk to an infected patient who else may have been exposed. The tracers then seek to identify close contacts and warn them of the possible exposure. They also offer optional monitoring, provide support, and recommend a quarantine period.
Farah Ahmed, an epidemiologist with KDHE, said the state has 126 contact monitors, although the staff ranges from 20 to 150, depending on the number of cases.
“I have many constituents, as I know you do, who are extremely concerned about privacy these days and government overbreadth,” Tyson said. “So it just seems aggressive, especially 126 employees who are still doing contact tracing. “
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Rep. Valdenia Winn, of D-Kansas City, dismissed the concern.
“What I would like and suggest to the senator and other senators and representatives whose constituents are concerned – he says that participation in COVID-19 contact tracing is voluntary,” Winn said. “So if they don’t want to participate, if they are concerned about the issues that you noted, then they are not participating.”
Representative Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, reminded lawmakers that COVID-19 is still here.
“The pandemic is not over and having specific numbers and information regarding COVID-19 helps us all understand what is going on, and it continues to continue,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Kuether said she was not disturbed by the continued contact tracing.
“I think we’re barking the wrong tree here,” she said.
Committee Deputy Chair Senator Kellie Warren R-Leawood asked if KDHE is measuring the impact of contact tracing.
“I mean, what’s the benefit? ” she said. “I understand the intended benefit stated. Does it really help? “
Faust-Gouduea compared COVID-19 contact tracing to sexually transmitted diseases.
“If there is a person with an STD and they go to the health service, they are positive, they surely ask who your partners have been with recently? Then these people are contacted to be alerted that they might need to go get checked. “
Representative William Sutton, R-Gardner, asked about the data collected by the tracers before contacting a close contact.
“Does the infected person give permission to then search for contacts?” ” he said. “Or is this person giving out private medical information about someone without their consent?” “
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Eugene Lueger, KDHE’s deputy chief counsel, explained the regulations to lawmakers, which were mostly updates to existing regulations with a new authorization status and an expiration date.
A change, however, allows contact tracers to ask questions about vaccination and testing status.
The settlement is expected to expire on June 30 with the end of the fiscal year.
“Contact tracing has been going on for many years and has been done for different infectious and contagious diseases,” Lueger said.
The legislative committee does not have the power to veto or change regulations. Several Republican lawmakers lamented this, pointing to a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the legislature more oversight power.
“From what I’ve heard from the department, they plan to ignore all of our comments today and move forward with the rules and regulations,” Tyson said.
“I’m pretty sure we can fix the problem through legislation,” Sutton said.
Data collection uses SalesForce
Ahmed said state contact tracers use Salesforce when collecting data.
Tyson questioned the KDHE’s use of Salesforce. She said she was “concerned that the data is actually in a database, such as Salesforce, as well as medical information.”
“I would be curious if this was the subject of an offer or if it was from a single source?” ” she said. “How did they end up with this software for handling health contact tracing? It’s a business application for sales.”
Ahmed said that at the start of the pandemic, Salesforce developed an app specific to monitoring contacts. She said she was not sure about the contract, but believed it had not gone through a tendering process due to the emergency clearance.
“Always a great practice,” said Sutton.
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He said the KDHE contractors “could very well be someone out of state who suddenly now has their medical information.”
Ahmed said investigators had “very limited medical information”.
“Yes, they know this person is a case,” she said. “Their job is to find out who they were able to exhibit. “
Jason Tidd is a state reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.