The group that lobbied against mandatory vaccinations has set its sights on COVID-19 contact tracing, calling the effort a tool for government surveillance. State officials say participation in the program is voluntary.
(TNS) — The Texas group that lobbies against vaccine mandates is now launching a campaign against COVID-19 contact tracing, the public health measure used for decades around the world to contain disease spread.
Texans for Vaccine Choice this week called on its members to contact Gov. Greg Abbott and let him know they “do not wish to be monitored or surveilled for any reason” in response to a new state program hiring and training workers to identify people who’ve come into close contact with those who recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Such people are then asked to quarantine until testing shows they don’t have the disease.
“The government should stop thinking its job is to keep everyone healthy and instead focus on protecting our rights,” says a post on the organization’s website. “We here at TFVC will remain vigilant as our government expands greatly and the threats to our members grow.”
The campaign drew an immediate rebuke from Dr. Peter Hotez, the Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease specialist who has led public health’s fight against the anti-vaccine movement, which he holds responsible for the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough.
Thanks to the movement’s efforts, some 60,000 Texas parents currently obtain nonmedical exemptions for school vaccines, some 25 times higher than 2003, the first year such exemptions were allowed. A 2018 study by Hotez found Houston and three other Texas cities rank among the 15 metropolitan “shot spots” of such exemptions.
“Awful to see the #antivax lobby in Texas now going the extra measure to halt #COVID-19 prevention,” Hotez tweeted Tuesday in reply to a Texans for Vaccine Choice tweet alerting people to the campaign. “In the name of fake ‘health freedoms’ slogans, they aspire to land thousands of Texans in our hospitals and ICUs.”
John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, noted that a contact tracing program was part of the guidelines laid out by President Donald Trump in order to reopen the state and has been used in Texas and the country for decades. He said the program is “completely voluntary” and that the state health department has “taken steps to ensure it protects individuals’ liberty and privacy.”
The contact tracing program became ensnared in controversy last month when the Houston Chronicle reported that the state awarded MTX Group, an inexperienced, little-known private technology company, up to $295 million to hire, train and manage tracers. State lawmakers subsequently questioned the lack of transparency and legislative input for such a large expenditure.
This week some conservative legislators began raising some of the same privacy concerns as Texans for Vaccine Choice.
“We’ve never done contact tracing on a statewide scale like this before,” said Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, the chairman of the Texas Freedom Caucus. “I have questions about the potential for abuse if any of that confidential information collected gets out and about informed consent. Will people feel pressured to participate?”
The caucus Tuesday called for an immediate end to the contract.
The program, funded by federal coronavirus emergency dollars, would expand the contact tracing the state already conducts. The state conducts tracing in counties too small to have health departments and when a county requests assistance.
“In order to respond to the pandemic, we need to build a picture of what’s happening on the ground, how the pieces fit together,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas health department. “Are there places the illness is occurring where we as a public health agency need to respond to limit the spread?”
The health departments of Houston and Harris County also have expanded their contact tracing programs. Harris County added 300 tracers — plus nearly 100 supervisors and support staff — in May, and Houston is adding 300.
Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said Thursday that his team asks only health-related questions and other details to protect the health and well-being of other individuals at potential risk for COVID-19. He said “it is vital that we remain a trustworthy public health entity in our community — therefore we take privacy very seriously.”
Texans for Vaccine Choice, whose website says members reached out to them concerned about the state program, posts a sample letter members can send asking the governor what assurances Texans have that additional contact tracing “will not evolve into another overreaching state program that will ultimately threaten our privacy and consume valuable state resources.”
“With so many Texans suffering financially, why are you spending $300 million on a ‘temporary’ program aimed at alleviating this single outbreak that, according to your own data, is disappearing without any sort of surveilling intervention?” asks the sample letter.
In fact, the latest state data shows no such disappearance of COVID — Tuesday’s 1,809 additional cases were the state’s largest single-day increase since the pandemic began.
In an article published in May in the journal Microbes and Infections, Hotez wrote that the anti-vaccine movement, “fueled with fresh conspiracies and new alliances,” has grown stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic. Those include “outrageous claims that Bill Gates or others created COVID-19 as a means to create mandatory vaccines” and that vaccines in the pipeline are “devices to promote the establishment of a global surveillance network in which each of us would receive an ‘electronic tattoo’ through injection of a vaccine data chip under the skin.”
“As COVID-19 spread in the spring of 2020, my prediction was the American public would recognize the urgency of developing and administering a vaccine, causing the anti-vaccine movement to dissipate,” Hotez wrote. “Tragically, the opposite has happened and there is risk we might see yet again a surge in America’s anti-vaccine movement.”
©2020 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.