We need effective contact tracing with privacy protections to open NJ’s economy and save lives.
In NJ, more than 12,000 people in the last three months have died from COVID-19 - more than we lost during all of WWII. During this same time period as Governor Murphy issued his stay-at-home order that shut down all but essential businesses, more than one million people in NJ claimed unemployment and the budget deficit over the next year is now predicted to be close to $10 billion dollars.
During this past week, my committee, the Assembly Science Innovation and Technology Committee, together with the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee chaired by Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter held a hearing on one of the key tools needed to reopen NJ’s economy safely: contact tracing.
Contact tracing has been a weapon in the battle to prevent the spread of communicable diseases for decades. According to the World Health Organization, the eradication of smallpox, for example, was achieved in 1979 not by universal immunization, but by exhaustive contact tracing. Diseases for which contact tracing is commonly performed include tuberculosis, vaccine-preventable infections like measles, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), blood-borne infections, some serious bacterial infections, and novel infections (e.g. SARS-CoV, H1N1, and COVID-19).
Technology plays a crucial role in contact tracing, and as our world has been more technologically advanced, our personal data have become more vulnerable. While NJ has no plans to develop a contact tracing app that we would download on our phones to track our movements, it does intend to use a central database to store contact tracing data in “the cloud.” This information, collected through telephone calls to those suspected of being in close contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19, will include your name, ask about how you are feeling, ask about others with whom you may have had close contact, and ask that you quarantine yourself. You will NEVER be asked for money, your social security number, bank information, immigration status, or other personally protected information.
Contact tracing will only work if people willingly participate in the process. And one of the key ways to get that participation is through guarantees of individual privacy, which is why I introduced A4170 that has bipartisan support in the General Assembly. The bill is not about the value of contact tracing or whether it should occur. Rather, the bill focuses on how it should be implemented with an appropriate protection of privacy. This bill provides that public health entities (such as the NJ Department of Health, county and local boards of health) collecting information on an individual for the purposes of contact tracing related to the COVID-19 pandemic, may only use the data for the purposes of completing contact tracing. Furthermore, these public health entities must delete the personal information once contact tracing is complete.
The more we protect a person’s privacy, the more willing they will be to participate honestly in contact tracing. People have to feel comfortable in responding to contact tracers.
This measure also requires that the Commissioner of Health publish website guidelines regarding how collected data may be used and how its security and confidentiality must be ensured. A mechanism where the public can submit comments over a 30-day period must be provided before any NJ Health Department guidance can be finalized.
As NJ continues to reopen and we spend more time with friends, family, and others, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread of this horrible virus that has killed so many. Ensuring that contact tracing is done with the involvement of local community members in a sensitive and caring way yet with strong privacy protections in place is essential.