Pennsylvania firing vendor that mishandled virus data
Pennsylvania is firing a company that performed COVID-19 contact tracing and exposed the private medical information of tens of thousands of residents, state officials said Thursday.
Employees of Insight Global used unauthorized Google accounts — readily viewable online — to store names, phone numbers, email addresses, COVID-19 exposure status, sexual orientations and other information about residents who had been reached for contact tracing. The company’s contract with the state required it safeguard people’s data.
The Department of Health said last month that at least 72,000 people were impacted.
The state had planned to drop Insight Global once its contract expires at the end of the July, but the Health Department said Thursday it will terminate the contract early, on June 19.
The department said that it was taking action “after more fully evaluating the circumstances” of the security lapse.
Insight Global is required to notify impacted people, and the Health Department said those notifications would begin next week. The department said the state’s contact tracing operation would continue with a new vendor.
“We are working to make sure that there is not a break in continuity in our contact tracing services as we transition out of the Insight Global contract and into our next contract,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said at a news briefing Thursday.
State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, who has accused the Wolf administration of being slow to act on the breach, said in a statement that he is pleased the state is severing ties with the Atlanta-based company, but that he still wants answers about the incident.
“This deserves a full investigation so we can learn what happened and how to prevent it from happening again moving forward,” he said.
Both Insight Global and the Health Department are facing litigation over the breach.
A federal lawsuit said the company had known about the improper handling of people’s confidential medical information as early as November — and that the Health Department learned of it as early as February — but neither took any action until April 21. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a New Kensington woman who had been contacted by Insight Global, seeks class action status.
The plaintiffs “have had their most personal, sensitive and private information disseminated to the public at large,” the suit said, and are at heightened risk of identity theft.
The state has paid Insight Global tens of millions of dollars since last summer to administer the state’s contact tracing program. Contact tracers identify people who have been exposed to the coronavirus so they can quarantine.
Insight Global has acknowledged it mishandled sensitive data and apologized. The company has said it only became aware on April 21 that employees had set up the unauthorized Google accounts for sharing information. Insight Global said it took steps to secure the information.
“Insight Global is committed to supporting a smooth transition of this program,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “Although neither Insight Global nor the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are aware of any misuse of the information involved, we understand the concern this potential access to such information may raise.”
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania marked a milestone on Thursday, with 50% of adults statewide now considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Wolf administration says it will lift an order requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks in public once 70% of Pennsylvanians aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated, meaning at least two weeks beyond the last required dose. Beam, the health secretary, said she expects the state to reach that mark in several weeks’ time.
The percentage stood at 50% on Thursday, according to federal data, while 68% of adults have had at least one shot.
The pace of vaccinations has been slowing for weeks, with most people eager to get the shot already having done so. Health Department data provided to The Associated Press shows Pennsylvania ordered only about a quarter of the vaccine doses to which it was entitled last week, signaling a steep drop-off in demand.
“From here on in, each shot is going to be hard-earned, and that’s not a challenge we’re going to shy away from,” Beam said.
She cited the importance of community organizations to help identify vaccine-hesitant people and persuade them to get the shot.
In rural Bradford County, where vaccinations are lagging badly, the Guthrie health care network has held pop-up clinics to make the shots more convenient, offers walk-in appointments, and has primary care doctors talk to their patients about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.
“We know that people have fears about the vaccine, and we know that’s more common in geographic areas like ours,” Dr. Michael Scalzone, chief quality officer at Guthrie, said in a phone interview. “There still remains some controversy in some of the communities, and that’s where we think education is important.”
Statewide, more than 65,000 people a day are getting vaccinated, according to the Health Department, down from an average of more than 100,000 people per day a month ago. That does not include Philadelphia, which runs its own vaccination program and is also reporting lower demand.
The good news: Newly confirmed coronavirus infections are falling rapidly in Pennsylvania — down almost 50% in two weeks — as the weather warms and more people get vaccinated. Hospitalizations are down, too.
Gov. Tom Wolf plans to lift nearly all remaining pandemic restrictions on Memorial Day.
DISASTER DECLARATION RENEWED
Wolf on Thursday renewed his pandemic disaster declaration, two days after Pennsylvania voters watered down the chief executive’s emergency authority.
Voters approved a pair of constitutional amendments that will give state lawmakers much more power over disaster declarations, to apply whether the emergency is another pandemic or natural disaster.
In a statement Thursday, Wolf said he had been in touch with the General Assembly on another extension, “and we will continue to collaborate on the future of this disaster declaration and any future declarations that become necessary to help Pennsylvanians in the midst of an emergency.”
The emergency declaration relaxes regulations for medical professionals to administer vaccines, gives the state access to federal emergency aid and streamlines National Guard deployments, among other things, his office said.