BATON ROUGE, LA. - Worries about the breach of individual privacy rights could undermine Louisiana's ability to quickly pinpoint those who have encountered someone infected with COVID-19, a tracking plan that public health experts say is critical to slowing the spread of the coronavirus disease.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has started reopening much of Louisiana's economy, saying residents have done well with staying home and apart from others that the state's no longer at risk of overwhelming its hospitals with COVID-19 patients.
Loosening restrictions means more people are moving around, visiting salons and restaurants, attending churches and encountering others. To avoid overwhelming spikes in coronavirus cases, infectious disease specialists say, requires robust testing to locate virus hot spots and widespread contact tracing to determine who has come into close contact with someone infected so they can be urged to self-isolate.
Dr. Alex Billioux, leader of Louisiana's public health office, said he knows some people will find the process of contact tracing "scary," to be asked about their interactions with people and businesses or to find out someone else has shared information about where they've been.
"The goal here, though, is to help protect you. The goal here is to identify where you have risk," Billioux said.
But word that the Edwards administration hired nearly 300 contact tracers on top of 70 already employed — and could eventually build up to 700 disease detectives to track the virus— quickly raised concerns about collecting personal medical information and spreading it improperly.
Rep. Raymond Crews, a Shreveport Republican, told health care officials he's heard a lot of reluctance to contact tracing from people who "put a big, big premium on liberty."
"My constituents are very leery. They think it opens a Pandora's box and it's going to be very scary," Crews said.
Realizing that widespread reluctance to respond to contact tracers could hamper Louisiana's efforts to contain the virus, Edwards has appealed to people to be "good neighbors" by participating.
The Democratic governor said people who test positive for the coronavirus will be asked to identify people they recently came into close contact with for 15 minutes or more. A contact tracer, working from home, will call those people and tell them they should get tested if they're symptomatic and should isolate for 14 days even if they're not showing symptoms.
"You can rest assured that your information will remain confidential," Edwards said.
Billioux stressed the contact tracers will follow federal laws for protecting personal health information. He said the information collected is held in a private system similar to those used by hospitals to store health data.
"We're not revealing any details of the individual that they came into contact with," Billioux said.
Public health agencies have used contact tracing to track and combat the spread of other infectious diseases for years, drawing little attention. Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor, said the nation has laws governing the process.
"Privacy is absolutely of greatest importance. Fortunately, we have 25 or 30 or even 40 years of privacy law that we have seen work," Cassidy said in a conference call with reporters. He added: "We have to reopen the economy safely, and we have to do it in a way which both balances the safety and the reopening. And the way to do that is to know who may be infected."
Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican, said contact tracing concerns are rampant on social media, and he's been inundated with emails and phone calls from people resisting the idea.
He said the state hasn't done enough to explain that the contact tracing will be done by phone, that participation will be voluntary and that the "government can't come into your home and lock you up." He also said more should be done to explain the benefits to slow the virus's spread.
McFarland acknowledged he's not yet "completely comfortable" with contact tracing, and he anticipates the state will have trouble getting some people to participate.
"Once people make up their minds, it's hard to change them," he said. "The public's perception is this is big government, an invasion of our privacy. Somebody's got to do a better job of changing that perception or it's not going to be successful."