Kansas officials say new COVID-19 law hurts contact tracing

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Public health officials in three Kansas counties say a new state law is hurting their efforts to trace the contacts of people infected with COVID-19 by making it easier for them to refuse to cooperate.

Public health departments often rely on employers to find out who has been in close contact with those infected, but the coronavirus law that was approved in June says “third parties,” such as employers and event hosts, must get consent from those who tested positive for COVID-19 and close contacts in order to share their information to public health agencies.

“Our disease investigators hold confidentiality to the utmost importance,” said Adrienne Byrne, director of the Sedgwick County Health Department in Wichita. “So I’m not sure what all went behind that bill, but it has not been good for public health because being able to do contact tracing helps us identify people that might turn positive and get them out of circulation to help stop the spread of the disease.”

Kansas reported Monday that its confirmed and probable coronavirus cases are approaching 32,000, up more than 5,500 or 21% over the past two weeks.

While lawmakers deliberated the coronavirus response bill in June, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt recommended that they include “a legal framework″ for protecting privacy and civil liberties. Schmidt spokesman John Milburn said in an email to the Associated Press that “the alternative to voluntary contact tracing is government-compelled contact tracing.”

“We do not believe Kansans should be threatened with government-imposed penalties if they decline to disclose with whom they associate or where they have been, at least not without judicial supervision,” he said.

The law passed after weeks of dispute between Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and top Republicans over her handling of the pandemic. Contact tracers and case investigators who violate the law can be charged with a class C misdemeanor.

“If we have to go in and try to get consent, it really just slows the whole process down,” Dr. Lee Norman, the state’s top public health official, said this week.

Coronavirus outbreaks in Wyandotte County have most commonly occurred at workplaces, said Elizabeth Groenweghe, the county health department’s chief epidemiologist.

The new law will “make it a bit more challenging to do the contact tracing in the workplace and help the workplace identify who needs to be quarantined, which could impact and perpetuate outbreaks within the workplace,” Groenweghe said.

The law also prevents people infected with COVID-19 and close contacts from being “compelled to participate in” contact tracing. Contact tracers and case investigators are now required to read a statement — or create their own version of it — informing recent close contacts that cooperating with health officials is voluntary, Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Kristi Zears said in an email.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, a Johnson County epidemiologist, said she thinks the statement makes it easier for people to decline to participate.

“I think that in particular with a disease such as this, where the implications are so great at this moment in time, in the middle of a pandemic, I certainly think that greater participation would help us slow transmission,” Holzschuh said.