BATON ROUGE (AP) — Republican state lawmakers, citing concerns about privacy rights, are trying to ensure that Louisiana won’t penalize residents who refuse to cooperate with the state’s work to track the coronavirus’s spread.
They’ve attached a provision by House Republican leader Blake Miguez in next year’s budget that would keep Louisiana from spending money on a virus tracking program that requires people to participate or face penalties. They’ve advanced legislation by GOP Rep. Raymond Crews, up for House debate Friday, calling on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to stress to residents that involvement in such a program is voluntary.
“I live in a rural district, a very rural district, and they’re private people,” said Rep. Dewith Carrier, an Oberlin Republican. “They sure don’t want the government calling them and asking them questions about where they’ve been or what they do.”
As states such as Louisiana reopen businesses, they run the risk of spikes in virus cases when more people interact with each other. To combat that risk, infectious disease specialists say states need robust contact tracing programs to determine who has come into close contact with someone infected with the COVID-19 disease so they can be urged to stay away from others.
The Edwards administration has hired hundreds of people to call those who test positive for the coronavirus and ask them to identify people they recently came into close contact with. Those people are then called and recommended to isolate for 14 days.
“Contact tracing is (a) key part of our strategy for moving the state forward, as it could determine who has been exposed to COVID-19. Contact tracers will never identify you or your health information,” Edwards posted Thursday on Twitter, among several recent messages trying to alleviate concerns about privacy.
Republicans said they’ve heard from people worried state officials will come into their homes, order them to describe where they’ve been and threaten to arrest or fine those who refuse to comply.
Edwards has said he doesn’t intend to penalize people who don’t provide information. Miguez, of Eunice, said he and others “want to make sure it stays that way.”
People “are worried about invasive questioning, interviews, their cellphones being tracked, families being divided, businesses recording entering and exiting,” Miguez said.
Miguez added language to the budget for the financial year that begins July 1 that would prohibit the state from using money on a contact tracing program “that is mandatory for any person or entity in the state.”
While Edwards has stressed the program is voluntary, Stephen Russo, chief lawyer for the Louisiana Department of Health, hedged when questioned in a Thursday budget hearing about what happens if someone refuses to provide information to contact tracers.
“To my knowledge, currently right now, we don’t have any plans to make (them), to arrest that individual or to prosecute that individual,” Russo replied.
Crews, of Shreveport, told Russo: “You keep saying, ‘We don’t have any plans to.’ The people want to know you will not. And there are plenty that will participate, and they’ll do it freely. But there’s a large group of people who are like, ‘Hey, mandatory, I’m not OK with..’”
Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, a New Orleans Democrat, sought to keep the language from being added to the budget proposal.
“I understand people’s privacy rights very much, but we are in a public health pandemic,” she said.
Several Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee sided with Republicans in a 19-5 vote to add the provision to the budget.
By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte
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