MONTGOMERY — On the heels of efforts nationwide to increase contact tracing, an Alabama lawmaker said he’d like to see parameters put into law regarding information collection, privacy and individuals’ liberties.
“My No. 1 concern is the possibility of limiting the movements and freedoms of one person because of the diagnosis of another person,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said on Monday.
Contract tracing is done to find people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and provide them with information, including home orders to quarantine, if applicable, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Health departments have used contact tracing for decades, but COVID-19 is expanding its utilization.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield last week told Congress the country needs between 30,000 and 100,000 people working on contact tracing in order to help contain the next wave of the coronavirus, The Hill reported.
“Contact tracing is a well-recognized public health procedure for notifiable diseases,” Assistant Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers said Monday. “Thus, ADPH has an experienced staff from Disease Control Programs and other public health disciplines currently managing contact tracing, along with some medical students.
"At any given time, ADPH has increased to about 150 persons working contact tracing in this outbreak," she said. "The department anticipates needing at least this number of persons to continue investigative efforts.”
Orr said he agrees with ADPH’s current contact tracing process.
“But I am most concerned about future public health officers that may try to mandate quarantines and restrict personal liberty and movement — all in the name of public health,” Orr said. “I understand the role of contact tracers and the related smartphone technology that is becoming available for use. It all sounds a bit Orwellian, and we need to be careful as we start down this road.”
Last month, the Alabama Department of Public Health said it was partnering with the University of Alabama Birmingham to launch a Google and Apple smartphone application for proximity tracking.
“This will initially be most useful in the university and college level population,” Landers said. “With additional use, ADPH will be able to expand the applicability of this technology.”
Apple and Google said the system does not collect location data from devices, and does not share identities of other users to each other, a Birmingham television station reported last month. Both companies say the user controls all data they want to share, and the decision to share it.
Orr said he would be concerned about any required app use by institutions.
“If people want to voluntarily do it, that’s their prerogative,” he said.
Orr said he doesn’t think people should be required to tell contact tracers with whom they have associated or been around.
“This is not a police investigation,” Orr said. “I just see much room for abuse down the road if a law is not put into place to protect our personal liberties, and not require they be sacrificed in the name of public health.”
If Gov. Kay Ivey calls lawmakers back to Montgomery for a special session this year, Orr said he will file legislation on contract tracing.
It will likely be similar to one approved this month by the Kansas Legislature and recommended by that state’s attorney general. According to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office, the legislation applies to both state and local government authorities. Its provisions include:
• Participation in contact tracing must be voluntary.
• Information collected through contact tracing must be used only for that purpose, kept confidential and not disclosed.
• Information must be destroyed when no longer needed for contact tracing.
• People working as contact tracers must receive training and must affirm that they are familiar with the privacy and civil liberties protections in the legislation.
The Kansas legislation also says contact tracing may not collect or use information through cell phone tracking.
Landers said ADPH has policies related to data collection, storage, and privacy, including HIPAA, and department personnel are trained on these policies and follow these procedures.
Orr said agency rules can be quickly and easily changed — laws take more effort and public scrutiny to revise.
He also said Alabama doesn’t need medical police ringing doorbells and telling citizens where they can go and with whom they can associate — all because they were exposed to a person with COVID-19 or another disease.
“The shutdown was more than enough for most Alabamians that they will ever need or want as to restricting their freedom of movement,” Orr said.