May 13, 2020

Mayor Baraka on Contact Tracing Fact vs. Fiction

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It has come to my attention that there are some concerns about Newark’s contact tracing program, which is the first in the state and designed to keep our residents protected from the horror of the COVID-19 virus, so I’m writing this to set the record straight.

We are experiencing a pandemic for which there is no vaccine, no proven medical cure and is one of the most lethal contagions in the history of mankind. Contact tracing is the only way to slow or stop this type of pandemic. It is credited with eradication of smallpox in 1979 and the fight against HIV, both outbreaks of SARS and Ebola.

The concerns I’m hearing mostly center around the privacy of the people who have contracted COVID-19 and the people with whom they have had contact.

Fueling these concerns are the development of COVID-19 tracing technology that can follow infected people through their cellphones and send alerts to people in their vicinity, which is indeed something out of a sci-fi movie and raises serious Civil Rights concerns about government using this technology for other tracking applications.

So, this is a good place to start as we separate fact from fiction about Newark’s contact tracing program.

Fiction: The movements of Newark residents infected with COVID-19 are being monitored by the City through their cellphones.

Fact: No such app or monitoring technology is being used in Newark. We are using the tried-and-true, old-fashioned method of contacting people by phone to remotely and safely call people who may have had contact with an infected person.

Fiction: Contact tracers will tell all your family and friends you have COVID-19, a severe violation of your medical privacy.

Fact 1: All contact tracers and investigators sign Newark Health Department confidentiality agreements which carry significant fines and even imprisonment if confidentiality is breached. These fines start at $1,000 and go up to $250,000 if information is sold for personal gain or used for malicious purposes. I assure you the City will enforce those agreements.  

Fact 2: Disease investigators who interview an infected person DO NOT pass that name on to contact tracers. Contact tracers ONLY get the names of people with whom the infected person has had contact. They call those people to notify them they have been in contact with an infected person without possibly being able to reveal the name.

Fiction: Contact tracers ask probing questions about your habits and behaviors.

Fact: Our contact tracers follow a script of several questions that pertain only to the contacted person’s medical experience or problems related to COVID-19.  

Fiction: The City may somehow use this data against the people both with COVID-19 and those with whom they have had contact.

Fact 1: The use of this data is to help STOP the spread of the disease. People who have had contact with a COVID-19 person should know so they can take appropriate steps of self-quarantine and getting tested.

Fact 2: Contact tracers also make sure those contacted know about City resources available to them, including testing sites, food distribution and medical information.

We all know by now that African-Americans are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than any other demographic group. We also know our frontline workers, many of whom are City employees and live in the City, are being exposed to the disease at higher rates, thereby exposing their families. For this reason, your cooperation with contact tracers and following their instructions is not only vital to the safety of your loved ones, but it is your civic duty to protect essential workers and help Newark recover from this pandemic.