As Connecticut prepares to loosen the lockdown on non-essential businesses next month (notice we said “prepare,” not throw the gates open as some other states), strict precautions are necessary to help avert a backwards slide on coronavirus infections.
First and foremost, along with increased testing, is an effort called contact tracing. Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday the state is ramping up for this voluntary program of monumental proportions. We appreciate that Connecticut is in the forefront of this regional effort with New York and New Jersey.
The concept is simple, the execution complex.
Contact tracing means querying everyone who tests positive for the coronavirus for whom they may have had contact with once symptoms appeared, and even days before. Family members? Co-workers? Delivery person? Grocery store clerk? The coronavirus is highly contagious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that for every individual with the virus, another two or three become infected.
These contacts are then reached by a trained worker who informs them they are at risk, provides advice and urges them to self-quarantine for 14 days. The name of the original infected person is not disclosed.
In a state with about 3 million inhabitants, the process will be time consuming, but must be performed swiftly for it to be effective at halting the spread of the virus.
An individual’s information on an extensive health database might raise privacy concerns for some.
Though privacy might be a fallacy in this social media age where every online purchase — or even wish — is tracked, the notion is deeply rooted. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis argued in 1928 for a constitutional right to privacy in a dissenting opinion concerning wiretapped telephone conversations. He articulated the right to be let alone as “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
However, the word “unjustifiable” is key. A century later, a devastating pandemic is a justifiable reason to cede for the greater good whatever remnants of privacy remain in the digital age.
That said, care can be taken to ensure the collected information is used solely for this purpose. For example, after a certain amount of time, names, phone numbers and exact street addresses would be erased but the remainder of the data remain for use in future studies of the pandemic’s progression.
The United States has no central contact tracing effort. Instead, states are left to figure it out. Connecticut will be part of one of the largest programs in joining with New York and New Jersey through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; the regional alliance makes sense.
Contact tracing, along with greatly increased testing, is necessary for Connecticut to emerge safely from the lockdown. The more people who participate willingly, the better protection for all.