Michigan Works to Deploy Virus Contact Tracing Methods

Michigan is seeking to pinpoint who might be infected with coronavirus by following physical interactions in a technique called contact tracing. It calls folks to let them know they might have been exposed.

by Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press / April 21, 2020
ASSOCIATED PRESS

(TNS) — Michigan is seeking to pinpoint who might be infected with coronavirus by following physical interactions in a technique called contact tracing. It calls folks — one by one — to let them know they might have been exposed.

To help, the Department of Health and Human Services and local municipalities have enlisting hundreds of volunteers, "medical professionals and everyday Michiganders," to make the calls and help identify patterns and hotspots.

But the state also has been running into a problem — and some criticism.

Many of the people the contact-tracers are trying to reach simply aren't answering calls because they are from unfamiliar numbers. Moreover, at least one local politician is calling the effort a big-data political ploy to collect personal information.

"I know a lot of you don't answer the phone when you see an unknown caller reaching in, but I implore you to answer the call if it comes," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday during her daily coronavirus briefing. "It could be a volunteer to tell you you've come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19."

Part of what the state is up against is a proliferation of COVID-19 scams.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical officer, added that in the past few weeks 130 department of health workers have contacted 12,000 people who may have been infected. In addition, the state has trained 2,200 volunteers for this effort.

Still, the World Health Organization has said contact tracing is crucial because "people in close contact with someone who is infected with a virus," are "at higher risk of becoming infected themselves, and of potentially further infecting others."

Other states also have turned to contact tracing, some as part of their plan to re-open the economy, and tech companies said social media also may help.

Massachusetts, for instance, has been identified as one of the first states to make a substantial investment in a contact-tracing program, budgeting millions and hiring 1,000 people as it aims to relax some social distancing limitations.

While, Massachusetts has a smaller population than Michigan, about 7 million compared with 10 million, respectively, it now has about 6,700 more coronavirus cases than Michigan.

On the West Coast, San Francisco is attempting to trace COVID-19 cases, news outlets reported earlier this month.

Protecting personal information

To keep each person's information private and to provide residents with the information they need, state officials have said: "It is important for health department staff to speak directly with impacted Michiganders."

The calls may be from various area codes, including 517.

Lisa Lee, associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech, said that until a vaccine is developed, health authorities "have little choice but to use this old-fashioned, but highly effective public health practice."

“If done well," she said, "contact tracing is extremely effective in preventing the secondary spread of infectious conditions."

She said that controlling the spread of the virus outweighed privacy issues, but data collection should be managed by a public health authority and only used for the public health purpose for which it was collected.

On top of phone calls, tech companies also are seeking other ways to track interactions through social media.

Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke on "Good Morning America" about efforts to join with Carnegie Mellon University researchers and using billions of Facebook users to track the pandemic.

Zuckerberg said Facebook wants to "produce an interactive map based on the aggregate data that provides a daily updated county by county map of this, of the symptoms that people are experiencing, across the country."

Local official criticizes effort

But one local official is accusing the state of politicizing the contact-tracing effort and raising privacy concerns.

Livingston County Commissioner Wes Nakagiri, who represents Hartland and Tyrone townships, said the state's contact tracing efforts collects "confidential personal medical information of Michigan citizens and shares it with Democrat candidates."

Nakagiri, a Tea Party activist who unsuccessfully sought to be the Republican party's nominee for lieutenant governor in 2014, said in a Monday interview with the Free Press he volunteered to do contact tracing because he "wanted to help."

Yet, in a note on his website, he has called it a scheme and an "insidiously clever and deceitful way to take political advantage of the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes."

His conclusion was based on his claim that "according to training documents, confidential medical information gained from contact tracing is entered into the NGP VAN database." He gave detailed accounts of what he said he saw as a volunteer.

NPG VAN is a privately-owned technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations that boasts on its website of helping to elect President Barack Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The organization's unusual name comes from the combination of two groups, NGP Software, which was founded by Nathaniel Goss Pearlman, and the Voter Activation Network.

Radio station WHMI-FM (93-5) in Howell, reported that a state health department spokesman said that NGP VAN "was among those being considered for the task, but it was his understanding that the firm is no longer under consideration."

In a follow-up website post, Nakagiri pointed to the WHMI report and said Whitmer denies plans "to share confidential health info," adding "the state can deny it all it wants" but people can decide for themselves what is happening.

Late Monday, the state said the health department is contracting with Great Lakes Community Engagement, a firm that specializes in outreach campaigns, and Every Action VAN, which has overlapping top leadership with NGP VAN, "to provide software to help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts."

©2020 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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