Daily News Op-Ed Highlights Need for Contact Tracing Confidentiality in New York State (2020)

In June, CHLP worked with local and national civil rights groups, public defenders and public health officials on the bill [A.10500-A (Gottfried)/S.8450-A (Rivera)] that prevents law and immigration enforcement access to COVID-19 contact tracing information, and a memo of support that calls on New York State legislators to pass it. As contact tracing is rolled out across the state, advocacy groups are raising the alarm about the weaponization of intimate health information by police and ICE, and the use of law enforcement personnel to conduct contact tracing. 

CHLP’s Amir Sadeghi joined bill sponsors Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried, the Chairs of the Health Committee, and advocates in a press conference on Tuesday, June 16 to announce support for the legislation, and to demand the protection of contact tracing data from law enforcement and immigration authorities. On July 23, the legislation passed the New York State Senate and Assembly. Advocates are urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign the bill without delay.

This New York Daily News op-ed supporting the legislation was penned by Alice Fontier at Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem and Kevin Vanderhook from Riverside Church. 



Contact tracing isn’t working; Cuomo can help


Link to article on Daily News website

The first wave of COVID-19 took an enormous toll on New York. As the government scrambled to respond, the state reeled: Sirens echoed through our streets, nursing home communities were devastated, and morgues filled with hundreds of victims daily. Each day our leaders hesitated to close schools, courts, businesses and offices wound up costing thousands of lives.

We have paid a hideous price for that hesitation, but for a moment, those grim days are in the rearview mirror. Thanks to a government response that finally met the challenge and to New Yorkers taking necessary precautions, the positive infection rate dropped to 1% or lower across most of the state. The fight now is to maintain and build upon this success, to hold the sirens of April at bay.

We must learn from the mistakes of this spring and act swiftly to use all of the tools at our disposal. Short of a vaccine, contact tracing is our most powerful tool.

Unfortunately, contact tracing is off to a slow start. Barely one-third of people who have tested positive have responded to contact tracers’ inquiries seeking to determine with whom they came into contact, information that’s vital to chasing down viral spread and preventing isolated instances from becoming wider outbreaks. Everyone knows contact tracing is dependent on near-universal participation to stymie COVID-19′s spread.

New Yorkers’ justifiable distrust of our institutions — particularly of law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — has hampered participation. People question how intimate data provided to contact tracers, which includes information about where they go and who they see, is shared. ICE and the police have shown a willingness to surveil communities and weaponize personal data against them.

As a public defender and a reverend in upper Manhattan, we have seen the damage law enforcement practices have inflicted on our community and the fear it has sown.

The solution is clear: New York must draw a bright line between contact tracing and law enforcement and guarantee that cooperation with contact tracers will have no negative impact on participants’ lives. To public health experts, this is a no-brainer. The Legislature recognizes that to make contact tracing a success, sensitive data must be protected. The Assembly and Senate unanimously passed a Contact Tracing Confidentiality bill, which prohibits law enforcement and federal immigration agents from being contact tracers and from accessing the data.

A stroke of the governor’s pen will make these protections a reality, and time is of the essence.

Data privacy is particularly critical for communities of color that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 and also have historically been targeted by police, therefore building distrust. Police have weaponized social distancing rules against them, and ICE has used stay-at-home orders to arrest and deport people from their homes at increased rates. These abuses compound New York’s centuries-long history of racist policing.

Is it any wonder that people would withhold information about where they have been and with whom they have spent time from government agencies?

In some areas of upstate New York, health departments have “deputized” police officers as contact tracers. There are very few people, especially in communities that have suffered at the hands of the police, who will willingly provide private information to the police.

Gov. Cuomo has asserted that contact tracing data is not being shared with police or other law enforcement authorities. If this is true, then he should immediately sign the Contact Tracing Confidentiality bill and make that promise law. Every day without action represents another missed opportunity to bolster the effectiveness of a lifesaving program.

We can never reclaim the days squandered in early March, nor the lives lost. But we can learn the lessons offered by the first wave and ensure we do not repeat those mistakes.

Fontier is managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. VanHook is minister of justice, advocacy and change at The Riverside Church.


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