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Worried about COVID-19 contact tracing and privacy? Kansas has the right approach


They tried mandatory contact tracing for coronavirus in one county in America — in Linn County, Kansas, just south of Kansas City — for all of two weeks. Epic fail. A losing proposition in both the courts and the court of public opinion.

Now, with a bill signed into law on Monday, Kansas is suddenly in the forefront of the nation in carefully regulated voluntary virus tracing.

That’s huge. People need to be comfortable with contact tracing, which is as old as our knowledge of infectious disease. There is simply no way to reopen the economy safely, and for people to go back to work and school without fear or peril, other than minimizing the spread of COVID-19. The best way to do that is for all of us to get on board with contact tracing — not because the government says we have to, but because we want to stay safe and keep our neighbors safe.

Wisely, after the failed Linn County experiment in mandatory tracing, and following a script largely written by Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office, the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly agreed on a statewide contact-tracing regimen that is completely voluntary and unmenacing. Visitors and customers are not required, but are definitely strongly urged, to leave their contact information when they shop, eat and transact business. And businesses are implored to take it down so that cases of COVID-19 can be traced and those who are exposed contacted.

Interestingly enough, Schmidt believes a voluntary contact-tracing program is more likely to succeed than a mandatory one.

“There’d be a revolt if the government tried to really compel each person to do” contact tracing, Schmidt told The Star. “The way you get the participation is to assure people that they’re not being ordered by the government to divulge this data, but they’re doing it voluntarily for a good cause.

“I think the only way contact tracing can work is if it’s voluntary. And I think the way you get people to participate in a voluntary system is to give them confidence that they can participate safely, securely and privately.”

Thus, Kansas law requires contact-tracing information be limited, confidential, made available to the government only through agreement of all parties or through a judicial warrant, and destroyed when no longer needed. In addition, to make certain Kansas really has thought this through, the program expires a year from now, to ensure it’s reviewed next legislative session.

That gives lawmakers added time to consider whether to also allow contact tracing via cellphone apps, which is expressly forbidden under the new law and frankly borders on Orwellian creepy.

It’s a pragmatic and deeply American approach that we hope Kansans embrace. Schmidt says that in his office’s research, it appears there are only one or two states that have anything close to Kansas’ new citizen-centric structure for contact tracing. But expect other states to follow.

One key will be the contact tracers — the people who track down cases before they become outbreaks and warn those who’ve been exposed so they can take care of themselves and stay away from others. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment now has 300 contact tracing volunteers who are either being trained or who are awaiting assignment.

Thankfully, compliance with KDHE will be voluntary.

Linn County found out just how dicey mandatory contact tracing can be. One plaintiff in the lawsuit that brought down the mandatory tracing was a restaurateur who realized that some customers were refusing to dine out if their personal information was going to be forcibly handed over to the government.

Objection noted. With Kansas’ new law making it voluntary statewide, there’s nothing to fear from participating in contact tracing. The real fear needs to be transmission of the virus.

Voluntary contact tracing, as it turns out, may even be vastly superior to mandatory. But only if people pitch in and actually do it.

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