State officials address privacy concerns ahead of enhanced contact tracing
BATON ROUGE - As we go into phase one of reopening the economy, Governor John Bel Edward and state health officials are pushing the importance of increased COVID-19 testing, along with a second step that they say is just as important - contact tracing.
Gov. Edwards and Dr. Alex Billioux with the Louisiana Department of Health fielded questions on Wednesday about contract tracing and privacy concerns for residents.
“Everything about this public health emergency demands that you do your very best to strike the balance between competing interests. And that plays out in a variety of ways,” Edwards said.
Being able to strike a balance between the current public health crisis and privacy is something Edwards believes can be accomplished as contact tracing is ramped up.
“We need to make sure that people know if they’ve come in contact with someone. And that is going to be critical to us moving forward and keeping the cases down,” Edwards said.
Around 75 contact tracers are already working in Louisiana That number will increase by at least 250 by Friday.
The state’s goal is to call a patient within 24 hours after the state receives a positive test result for that person. After that, they want to contact at least 3/4 of the people they’ve come in close contact with.
“That’s being less than 6 feet for greater than 15 minutes,” Billioux said.
Typical questions from contact tracers include who have you been around and where have you been in the past 14 days. They may even suggest that you self-isolate if you’ve possibly been exposed.
Officials say the number of phone calls will likely increase as we head into phase one, so don’t be surprised if a contact tracer calls you within the coming weeks.
“Right now when people are staying at home, our contacts are pretty small. Most of our contacts are going to be household contacts. It’s going to be very easy to move through those cases. When we start to reengage these sectors when we start to move out and about more, we’re gonna see contacts go up and it's gonna be more phone calls more time that’s taken,” Billioux said.
Edwards is urging residents to cooperate during this trying time and says he understands the privacy concerns. But he hopes that people would want to know if they have been possibly exposed to the virus.
“Individuals obviously have a privacy interest. They also have an interest in knowing whether they have come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19. It benefits not just them but their families and the people they would otherwise come in contact with,” Edwards said.
Billioux echoed the governor’s message, saying he’s confident in their plan to track the virus while protecting people’s information safe.
“The systems that we’re using, the training that we’re doing, the health and informatics systems that underlay it, all meet the HIPAA requirements. And that’s the hospital level, healthcare level data protections that should give us some confidence that that information is being protected,” Billioux said. “We’re training folks to know when they’re talking to someone they’re talking to somebody almost as a healthcare professional, where they can’t go and tell after their day of work, ‘hey let me tell you about this case.’”
Edwards had previously said that up to 700 contact tracers could be hired to work in the three call centers set up for contact tracing. He says the state will continue to monitor and scale the number of employees either up or down as needed.
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