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GOP sees privacy as key as Kansas debates contact tracing

January 5, 2021 GMT
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly gestures to the spot on her left arm where she received a COVID-19 vaccine shot as she tells reporters she had no reaction to it, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Kelly says she is very comfortable with the distribution of vaccines across the state, saying federal data showing Kansas lagging behind all others in inoculations is the result of a lag in reporting. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly gestures to the spot on her left arm where she received a COVID-19 vaccine shot as she tells reporters she had no reaction to it, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Kelly says she is very comfortable with the distribution of vaccines across the state, saying federal data showing Kansas lagging behind all others in inoculations is the result of a lag in reporting. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly gestures to the spot on her left arm where she received a COVID-19 vaccine shot as she tells reporters she had no reaction to it, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Kelly says she is very comfortable with the distribution of vaccines across the state, saying federal data showing Kansas lagging behind all others in inoculations is the result of a lag in reporting. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators and Kansas’ GOP attorney general said Tuesday that privacy is key, as lawmakers prepared to decide whether to rewrite a law that allows people exposed to COVID-19 to refuse to disclose their close contacts to health officials.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly wants legislators to rewrite the law enacted last year, arguing in a recent interview that provisions allowing people to opt out of contact tracing “served no purpose.” Some health officials say the law hinders efforts to trace new coronavirus cases to their source and warn others who might have been infected.

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Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature aren’t ruling out changes, but some said they want to make sure people’s privacy remains protected. The law was enacted for the COVID-19 pandemic and is set to expire May 1, forcing legislators to review it during the annual 90-day session opening Monday.

“The right to privacy is a constitutional right that we all hold, so I think any time that you do anything to impede or step on that, that you have to be very cautious,” Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican and the incoming chair of the Senate health committee, said Tuesday.

The renewed debate over privacy, like a coming debate about whether local officials or the state control the pandemic response, comes as Republicans are gearing up to try to retake the governor’s office in 2022. Kelly plans to seek reelection; Schmidt is considered a potential Republican candidate, and the GOP already is trying to draw distinctions between its approach to the pandemic and Kelly’s.

Schmidt proposed the contact-tracing law and legislators included it in a package of measures governing the state’s coronavirus response. Kelly said she was forced to accept the whole package to preserve a state of emergency for the pandemic and called the contact-tracing law “not helpful.”

“Contact tracing is a 100-year-old, well-documented public health strategy,” she said. “It was absurd to play politics with it. It really didn’t need to happen. It served no purpose, other than to make a political point.”

But Schmidt spokesman John Milburn said: “From the attorney general’s standpoint, the act is working well, particularly its protections that ensure individuals control whether to divulge information about their movements and associations and that oblige the government to carefully safeguard any information it collects.”

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Justin Beck, the CEO of California-based technology company Contakt World, said “very basic technology” can be used to contact people other than through phone calls and allow them to send information to public health agencies without revealing their names. His company, an affiliate member of the national group for local health officials, is planning this month to launch a platform for contact tracing by text, apps and interactive voice recording.

“In Kansas, in particular, there’s a lot of reticence to participate in the contact tracing process,” he said.

About 50% of people in Douglas County in northeast Kansas testing positive for COVID-19 refuse to cooperate with health officials, said Sonia Jordan, the local health department’s director of informatics. She said people typically decline when health officials ask for permission to call recent close contacts, including some who say they already notified friends and family.

Jordan said disease investigators used to be able to tell people that the state requires them to ask for contacts, but staff can no longer use that line. She isn’t sure whether she wants the law removed, but said she doesn’t think there would be a “negative effect on public health” if it were scrapped.

But other public health officials say the law hasn’t hurt contact tracing efforts. Ford County Health Department Administrator Angela Sowers estimates that fewer than 30 people declined to cooperate with contact tracers after the law went into effect.

Sowers said contact tracers have encountered difficulties when a person they reach by phone tells them that they are unavailable and don’t answer again.

“We try several times,” Sowers said. “Whenever it’s convenient for them, we try and find that out so we can talk to them.”

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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On Twitter, follow John Hanna at: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna and Andy Tsubasa Field at https://twitter.com/AndyTsubasaF