As part of his “Open Texas” plan, Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state would begin contact tracing efforts to “help slow and contain the spread of coronavirus.”
“Contact tracing is a method used to find and follow up with people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), which will head up the tracing efforts.
President Trump’s “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” include recommendations for states to increase testing and partake in contact tracing.
Under the program, a more concerted effort is made to identify those who have contracted COVID-19 through increased clinical testing, outbreak investigations, and self-reporting through the Texas Health Trace online application. Health officials will then ask questions to identify those individuals with whom the positive patient has come in contact.
The contact tracing plan was set to begin earlier this week on April 27. It includes hiring and training over 2000 state and local contact tracers. These tracers are being recruited all over the state to track down, by phone and online, anyone who has come in contact with COVID-19 positive patients.
DSHS repeatedly claims that all case and contact information is kept private based on its established privacy policies. The CDC also provides principles that should be followed in contact tracing to protect the identity of the COVID-19 patient and any contacts.
Contract tracers will ask those who may have had contact with a positive case a series of questions about symptoms. If any symptoms are present, they encourage the contact to get tested for COVID-19. If no symptoms are apparent, they encourage those people to self-isolate for fourteen days to see if symptoms appear.
The fourteen-day isolation period is based on the idea that “the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to others by infected persons who appear to have few or no symptoms.”
The CDC states on its website that the role of asymptomatic transmission is uncertain. It goes on to explain that based on current literature, the incubation period for COVID-19 is between 2 and 14 days.
According to Texas DSHS frequently asked questions on their website, participation in contact tracing is completely voluntary and not legally required.
Places like Israel, Singapore, and South Korea have utilized cell phone tracking data to determine which citizens had come in contact with coronavirus patients. Israel’s Supreme Court has since declared the phone tracking unconstitutional.
Google and Apple are working together to release an application programming interface (API) for contact tracing in May which users can download from the respective app stores. In the coming months, it also plans to build contact tracing abilities into the smartphones’ underlying platforms.
It appears that Texas’ contact tracing program would include a self-reporting phone application, which will provide users with information about coronavirus symptoms and locations of testing sites.
A recent bill passed Congress and was signed by President Trump that provides $25 billion to a “Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund” to provide necessary expenses to fight coronavirus, including “to conduct surveillance and contact tracing.”
Since Governor Abbott’s “Open Texas” orders, the Texas Department of State Health Services has apparently contracted with MTX Group for $295 million for 27 months to hire and train contact tracing personnel and establish a call center. According to DSHS, there are 2004 contact tracers in place. The technology company appears to be working on contact tracing efforts for other states, including Oklahoma and New York.
Austin Mayor’s Steve Adler issued an order effective May 8 through May 30 that encourages dine-in restaurants “to maintain an activity log of, as reasonably possible, the contact information for all inside or sit-down customers and employees including the dates and times they were present.”
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, reports that Google and Apple adopted its privacy protection recommendations for their contact tracing apps, including that the apps may not “collect any device information to track the precise location of a user.”
Here is a graph from “The Governor’s Report to Open Texas” outlining the practice of contract tracing:
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.