Courtesy of the governor's office

Extensive contact tracing is likely to be one of the “pillars” to preventing further COVID-19 outbreaks once some restrictions are lifted, state officials said Thursday.

But the American Civil Liberties Union wants to make sure that if states use technology to determine who may have been in contact with someone who has tested positive that it’s voluntary and trusted.

“If people don’t trust it, they won’t install it or use it properly,” said Jon Callas ACLU Senior Technology Fellow and a former Apple security expert.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Dr. Albert Ko, the chair of epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, both said that mass testing for the disease and contact tracing would be key components in preventing “rebound” infections from ramping the illness rate back up once it is under control.

“Contact tracing is important because we don’t want people who are asymptomatic spreading the disease into the community,” Ko said.

The goal of contact tracing is to identify anyone who has potentially come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, so they can be alerted to self-isolate, Ko said. The tracing would go further to also identify anyone those people had contact with so they can be told to self-isolate as well, Ko added.

“This gets as many people who are infected off the streets as possible,” Ko said.

Lamont said there has been no determination on how contact tracing would be conducted in the state. The Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group appointed by Lamont this week will come up with plans to reopen the state once the number of infections and hospitalizations goes down, Ko said.

More than 15,800 residents have tested positive and 971 have died as of Thursday.

Since early March when Lamont declared a state of emergency due to the public health crisis, he has systematically shut down large gatherings and non-essential businesses and schools in an effort to stem the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The advisory group was formed to determine how to safely reopen the state in ways that will not cause the number of infections to flare up again before a vaccine can be developed, which could take up to 18 months.

Any contact tracing measures would be voluntary and guarantee people’s privacy, Lamont said.

The state would need to hire teams of people for the effort and the advisory group is looking at the best practices for contact tracing, Ko said. “We’re looking at new technology but we don’t know how right now,” Ko said. “We are going to do this efficiently and ethically.”

Connecticut COVID-19 Briefing – 4:30 p.m. – April 16, 2020

Today’s COVID-19 briefing is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Feel free to post your questions in the comments below. We will also post some links to informational pages – if something isn’t covered in one of those pages, post your question.

Posted by CTNewsJunkie on Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Connecticut ACLU is watching the developments, especially the potential for the use of “invasive surveillance technology,” Executive Director David McGuire said.

“The COVID-19 virus is a grave public health risk, so the state should not write off tools that might help mitigate the problem,” McGuire said. “But the state must also recognize that technology is no magic pill to stemming the COVID-19 pandemic and should be especially leery of indiscriminate mass collection of location data. Good privacy protections are vital for engendering public trust, which is vital to an effective fight against the pandemic.”

Callas and Daniel Kahn Gillmor, an ACLU Senior Staff Technologist told reporters during a virtual press conference Thursday that contact tracing would only work if people were invested in the process and the public had access to cheap and available testing for COVID-19.

“This will need to be applied in concert with other methods,” Gillmor said. “We’ll still need testing and hospitals that can treat people.”

Gillmor issued a written report Thursday recommending that the best methods of contact tracing would allow people to download an app on their cell phone that could store proximity to other cell phones through Bluetooth devices for up to two weeks.

The app would have to be narrowly tailored so that it doesn’t invade anyone’s privacy and it would have to allow users to turn the app off while people are sleeping or perhaps driving alone in their car, Gillmor said.

Participation would have to be voluntary and not punitive, he said. The plan would have to take into consideration that some people don’t have cell phones and some people who do, don’t have Bluetooth, he said.

“But what will make them (the apps) successful is that people will want to install them,” to help the greater good, especially if the technology is trusted and not mandatory, Gillmor said. “It should be voluntary. We don’t need to 100 percent participation to flatten the curve.”