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N.J. Governor Promises to Safeguard Contact Tracing Data

Gov. Phil Murphy made assurances that personal data would be kept safe as the state prepares to deploy contact tracing technology. He says the tools will not be used to track movements.

by Rebecca Everett, NJ Advance Media Group / June 11, 2020
Camden County Department of Health Contact Tracing in Action. Daniela Fumu, Camden County's Public Health Emergency Notification System Coordinator and Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator is in her office doing contact tracing on 5-21-2020. TNS

(TNS) — Gov. Phil Murphy said the state should be ready to deploy the first group of new contact tracer hires next week, noting their efforts to reach out to people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus will only become more critical as the state relaxes restrictions on gatherings and business.

“As we begin Stage 2 of our restart on Monday, new contact tracers will be recruited and trained,” Murphy said at his daily press briefing Wednesday. “As more businesses come back online the following week, so, too, will more contact tracers. Each step of our restart will be accompanied by the on-boarding of new contact tracers.”

Contact tracing is a public health practice where health officials interview someone who is positive for an infectious disease, such as hepatitis A or HIV, and then reaches out to their close contacts to advise them to isolate, get tested or seek treatment, depending on the virus. In the case of the coronavirus, a close contact is considered to be a person who interacted with them at a distance of six feet or less for at least 10 minutes.

The governor also sought to allay fears about contact tracing, assuring the public that their health data would be kept secure and confidential, and that there will be no app tracking their movements, as some other countries have used.

It’s been a month since Murphy announced the plan to establish a Community Contact Tracing Corps to assist the state’s 94 local health departments, some of which struggled to keep up with the caseloads at times.

Murphy said at least 1,600 new contact tracers should be “on board” this month, with the first group starting their 15-hour training Monday, when nonessential retail stores can fully reopen and outdoor dining will restart. It’s possible the state could need as many as 4,000 if there is a resurgence of the virus, he said.

New Jersey’s plan for contact tracing, announced May 12, followed earlier efforts from other states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan to bring on more contact tracers. In the meantime, New Jersey’s local health departments have found ways to triple their own workforce of tracers from 300 to 900 by relying on volunteers, other health officials and public employees borrowed from their usual jobs.

It hasn’t been hard for New Jersey to find people willing to do contact tracing work. Since launching a portal where people could apply, the state received 50,000 submissions, Murphy said.

However, the first ranks of recruits are likely to be Rutgers School of Public Health graduate students and alumni, followed by other New Jersey college students, according to Rutgers. The job will pay $25 an hour, Murphy previously said.

The university’s Center for Public Health Workforce Development developed a training for the contact tracers, “using a curriculum based on national training platforms that ensures confidentiality for all people interviewed, along with an understanding of New Jersey-specific cultural information,” the university said.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said the training will include “cultural sensitivity, cultural bias and historical cultural awareness" to ensure interviewers are sensitive to the communities they’re contacting. Minority communities and vulnerable populations have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, she noted.

In May, School of Public Health Dean Perry Halkitis said the school will be creating a kind of prototype for how to train tracers, so it can be scaled up and eventually managed by a third party, like a staffing company or nonprofit.

The Department of Health has said it is soliciting proposals from vendors, organizations, and institutions to “aid with recruitment, assessment, hiring, training and management of contact tracers,” but they have not chosen a vendor yet.

The second part of the state’s contact tracing plan is implementing a new contact tracing database platform by Dimagi called CommCare, which is intended to simplify the inputting and sharing of data as necessary between health departments, including those in Pennsylvania and New York.

New Jersey is the first state to announce it will adopt the platform, which is already up and running in two California counties and in a handful of cities, according to Jonathan Jackson, Dimagi’s co-founder and CEO.

Persichilli said several health departments are piloting the software and it should be rolled out statewide by the end of the month. The governor’s staff has not responded to questions about the cost of the platform.

Dimagi and Murphy said the platform complies with federal health privacy law and all data will be encrypted for confidentiality.

“To be clear: CommCare is the database that allows us to do this work effectively, it is not a tracking app. And, there is a huge difference there. CommCare doesn’t track your cell phone, know your GPS location, or use any geolocation data,” Murphy said.

The governor reminded the public of contact tracing scams, and said real tracers will never ask for social security numbers, financial information, immigration status or criminal history.

He said he hopes people will understand that sharing their personal health information with contact tracers is important.

“I would just plead to folks, we’re doing this for your good and your family good and the greater community good,” he said.

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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