'It's an invasion of privacy': Kansas GOP lawmaker wants COVID contact tracing stopped by special session

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, suggested at a Monday committee meeting that lawmakers should move to stop COVID-19 contact tracing during the upcoming special session. 2021 Capital-Journal File Photo.

A high-ranking Republican lawmaker who is running for statewide office wants the upcoming special session to put an end to COVID-19 contact tracing, calling the practice an invasion of privacy.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, made the suggestion to "stop this specific contact tracing" at a Monday meeting of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations.

The Republican supermajority in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature forced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to call a special session starting Nov. 22. Lawmakers are set to debate proposals on COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions and unemployment insurance for unvaccinated workers who lose their jobs, though additional measures could be proposed.

Tyson, who is running for state treasurer, said during and after the meeting that she would want legislation removing COVID-19 contact tracing language from last session's appropriations bill. But she demurred on whether she would introduce a bill or an amendment herself.

"I am not driving the ship for special session, so I can't answer that," Tyson said in response to a question from Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. "But I did reach out to leadership and let them know. I don't think a majority of legislators ... knew that that was in a budget bill."

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The budget bill granted the Kansas Department of Health and Environment the authority to hire contact tracers and to adopt related regulations.

Among other provisions, the law requires that contact tracers meet KDHE qualifications and training, take an oath, collect only certain data and inform people that participation in contact tracing is voluntary for both the infected individual and the close contact.

It is unclear whether repealing the COVID-19 contact tracing provision as Tyson proposed would end the practice. Instead, it could mean contact tracing for COVID-19 would no longer have the more arduous rules imposed by the Legislature.

Committee chairperson Rep. Barbara Wasinger, R-Hays, questioned the need for regulations specific to COVID-19.

"I think at this point, I just I would like to ask, why is it necessary?" she said. "You have contact tracing for many other issues, measles or smallpox, why are we making separate rules and regs? ... Why are we just adding more regulations and rules to confuse people?"

KDHE has regulations for COVID-19 contact tracing because that is what the appropriations bill directed the agency to do. The provisions were originally created during a 2020 special session.

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Agency officials said there are no regulations governing contact tracing for other infectious diseases.

Ahmed said the practice is typically done by local public health authorities, which works well with small numbers of cases. But local officials were overwhelmed by the large caseloads brought by the pandemic.

"If you're always going to need contact tracers, you may just have to make contact tracer regulations, instead of making this purely for COVID," Wasinger said. "With COVID changing, it's a virus, just like the flu. It's not going away. We'll have it forever. Thank you, unnamed country."

'Invasion of privacy'

Asked by a reporter after the meeting whether her opposition is to COVID-19 contact tracing specifically or for all infectious diseases, Tyson said, "I don’t support the government contact tracing."

"I know that it was an issue when the governor was using our cell phones to trace our activities during the COVID pandemic last year," she said. "Constituents and Kansans were rightly upset over the fact that they were tracking — the government — it's an invasion of privacy.

"It ties back to what the federal government, the overreach with the invasion of privacy with the federal government, the fact that they're trying to monitor bank accounts and have financial institutions report your activity."

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"It's invasive," Tyson said. "That's not what our country was founded on. That's not the premise of our nation."

Contact tracers are public health workers who talk to an infected patient about who else might have been exposed. The tracers then seek to identify close contacts and notify them of the possible exposure. They also offer optional monitoring, provide assistance and recommend a quarantine period.

Farah Ahmed, a KDHE epidemiologist, said the state has 126 contact monitors, though staffing varies from as low as 20 to as high as 150, depending on caseload.

"I have many constituents, as I know you guys do, that are extremely concerned about privacy these days and government overreach," Tyson said. "So this just seems aggressive, especially 126 employees still doing the contact tracing."

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Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, dismissed the concern.

"What I would want and suggest the senator and other senators and representatives whose constituents are concerned — it says participation in COVID-19 contact tracing is voluntary," Winn said. "So if they don't want to participate, if they're concerned about the issues you noted, then they don't participate."

Regulations changing

Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, reminded the legislators that COVID-19 is still around.

"The pandemic is not over and to have specific numbers and information concerning COVID-19 helps all of us to understand what is going on, and it continues to go on," she said. "We're not out of the woods yet."

Kuether said she is not bothered by contact tracing continuing.

"I think we're barking up the wrong tree here," she said.

Committee vice chairperson Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, asked whether KDHE is measuring the impact of contact tracing.

"I mean, what's the benefit of it?" she said. "I understand the stated intended benefit. Is it actually helping?"

Faust-Gouduea compared COVID-19 contact tracing to sexually transmitted diseases.

"If there is an individual with an STD, and they go to the health department, they are positive, surely they ask who have your partners been with lately? Then those individuals are contacted to be alerted that they might need to go get checked."

Rep. William Sutton, R-Gardner, asked about the data collected by tracers prior to contacting a close contact.

"Does the person infected give permission to then do contact tracing?" he said. "Or is that person giving private medical information about someone without their consent?"

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Eugene Lueger, KDHE associate chief counsel, explained the regulations to lawmakers, which were mostly updates to existing regulations with a new authorizing statute and sunset date.

One change, though, allows contact tracers to ask about vaccination and testing status.

The regulations are scheduled to end June 30 with the end of the fiscal year.

"Contact tracing has been going on for many years, and it's been done for different various infectious and contagious diseases," Lueger said.

The legislative committee does not have power to veto or amend the regulations. Several Republican legislators lamented that, pointing to a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature more oversight authority.

"From what I heard from the department, they plan to disregard all of our comments today and move forward on rules and regs," Tyson said.

"I'm pretty sure we can solve the problem legislatively," Sutton said.

Data collection uses SalesForce

Ahmed said the state's contact tracers use Salesforce when collecting data.

Tyson questioned the KDHE's use of Salesforce. She said she has "concern about the data actually being in a database, such as Salesforce, also medical information."

"I would be curious as to whether that went out for bid or was it sole source?" she said. "How did they land on that software to manage contact tracing for health? It's a business application for sales."

Ahmed said early in the pandemic, Salesforce developed an application specific to contact monitoring. She said she was unsure about the contract, but she believed it did not go through a bid process because of the emergency authorization.

"Always a lovely practice," Sutton said.

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He said that KDHE contractors "may very well be a person out of state who suddenly now has their medical information."

Ahmed said the investigators do have "very limited medical information."

"Yes, they do know that that person is a case," she said. "Their job is to figure out who they might have exposed."

Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at jtidd@gannett.com.