Public health officials, governors, and members of Congress all seem to agree that for the country to safely re-open for business and contain the spread of the new coronavirus, states and cities will need to roll out a massive new contact tracing program. That’s the public health strategy designed to identify everyone who’s come in contact with someone testing positive for the virus to encourage them to quarantine. “[T]racing, tracing, tracing” is one of the keys to opening the economy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a briefing in early May.
But lots of Americans have a very different view of contact tracing. “This is the next generation of brownshirts,” declared Jack Robertson, on his far-right radio show Radio Free Redoubt, which he broadcasts from Spokane, Washington, under the pseudonym John Jacob Schmidt. The program would be so invasive, Robertson assured his listeners, all restaurant patrons will have to provide their contact information as a condition of getting served in order to be tracked down later if someone gets sick. “You’re just going to have to give up going to restaurants,” he lamented.
Robertson is not alone in his view that contact tracing is a vast government conspiracy to infringe on people’s rights, rather than a standard public health intervention that’s been used to mitigate infectious diseases from tuberculosis to STDs to Ebola. Anti-vaccine activists, the John Birch Society, and many of those participating in “re-open” protests over the past month have declared their intention to resist any attempts to force them to participate. One member of the Reopen Virginia Facebook group recently posted a job announcement from the state public health department looking for 1,300 new contact tracers, with the caption, “Evidently the Gestapo is hiring.” Just in the past two weeks activists in Texas have formed a new group, Texans Against Contact Tracing, to oppose a new $295 million contract the state recently issued to hire hundreds of public health sleuths. They rallied for a protest at the state capital on May 24.
Texans Rally At State Capitol In Protest Of Contact Tracing https://t.co/Y1JILkxY2a
— America Rising (@AmericaRising7) May 23, 2020
Even as Congress considers H.R. 6666, the unfortunately numbered COVID-19 TRACE Act sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Il.), which would devote $100 billion to helping states hire contact tracers, activists in the right-wing fever swamp have launched petitions and worked the phones to fight any expansion of this public health initiative. As Virginia state senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase posted on Facebook recently, “I will not be MASKED, TESTED, TRACKED, or CHIPPED to support this LIBERAL agenda.”
Failed California congressional candidate and Trump supporter DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero warned in a livestreamed video that contact tracers should “scare the crap out of everyone,” adding, “President Trump, if you’re watching, you need to put a stop to this immediately.” A “dating, relationship and attraction coach” and author of Making Love Great Again, she is so suspicious of the ulterior motives of contact tracing that she says she’s going to get a job as one and go undercover and get to the bottom of things. “What kind of soulless, pathetic person would take a job as a contact tracer and sell out their fellow Americans?” she asked in a livestream May 19. “Who would do that? But then I realized, well, Antifa has been out of work for a while and so has MS-13, so maybe someone like them.”
If Tesoriero really wants to know how it all works, there’s no need to go undercover. She could just take one of the online classes now available to help train the armies of contact tracers being hired by states to help quell the pandemic. I did—it’s free! The best-known one was created by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and has now trained more than 268,000 people.
I signed on for five hours of video instruction from Hopkins epidemiologist Emily Gurley, whose soothing voice walked me through the origins of the SARS Covid-2 virus and all its clinical manifestations and transmission patterns. She covered the ethics of contact tracing and balancing individual rights with public health. She laid out the nuts and bolts of how to make a tracing call. Tesoriero may want to brush up on her math skills before she signs up—contact tracing involves more arithmetic than I had expected. It’s not hard, but it can be confusing. Tracers need to use exposure windows and infectious periods to work out how long someone needs to isolate themselves. (I scored an embarrassing 75 percent on my first try at the quiz on calculating isolation times.)
About half the class is devoted to building trust and rapport with people so they’ll be more inclined to cooperate. (Rule number one: “Do not offer personal opinions,” which may pose a special challenge for a MAGA relationship coach.) Much of the work involves educating sick people and their contacts about why it’s so important to isolate themselves. Far from the image spread by right-wing conspiracy theorists, contact tracers are a lot more like social workers than cops. According to my class, a contact tracer must “offer resources” to people trying to self-quarantine, like referrals for medical care, or grocery deliveries, or housing—all the things that would allow them to stay inside until they can’t infect anyone. Overall, there’s nothing in the class that would qualify as a state secret, though perhaps it should have devoted some time to dealing with folks like Tesoriero, who won’t be too happy to receive a call from a contact tracer working for the health department.
Of course, even the Hopkins class would not dissuade those who already are inclined to believe that contact tracing is a form of tyranny and a massive violation of Constitutional rights. A woman in California posting on Vimeo as FreedomLover1977 took the class and then made a 23-minute video about it entitled, “Contact Tracing Scarier than You Imagined.” It had been viewed more than 100,000 times by May 28. Opening with an ominous slide that reads, “Contact tracing: they will find you,” she promises, “You’re going to be freaked out by the end of this video.” Warning that law enforcement can access testing information and other data collected through contact tracing, she also notes darkly that public health authorities have the power to force sick people to quarantine. This is, of course, true and has been since the days of Typhoid Mary, but in the real world it virtually never happens.
What people like FreedomLover1977 don’t realize is that the problem with contact tracing isn’t that it might lead the government to send people into a quarantine facility, but that the government can’t send people into a quarantine facility, because such places don’t really exist in this country. In fact, while I was taking the Hopkins class, I imagined calling someone who lived packed like a sardine into substandard housing and trying to explain that they really need to quarantine somewhere with a separate bedroom and a private bathroom if they don’t want to kill Grandma. In most parts of the country, a contact tracer would have absolutely nothing to offer such people except a sympathetic, “I hear you,” as outlined in Gurley’s “Tips for Effective Communication” class module.
Even if the US suddenly invested in huge numbers of hotel rooms for people to hunker down in until their infections passed, the health department is still unlikely to force anyone identified by a contact tracer to use them. “Local health authorities do have the authority to mandate isolation or quarantine, but they rarely use it because they know it will really discourage people from going to the doctor or getting tested,” says Maria Courogen, branch director for disease containment at the Washington State public health department, who is overseeing that state’s contact tracing efforts. “We know the practice of that would result in negative consequences that won’t help us combat the disease.”
Nonetheless, fear-mongering and conspiracy theories around contact tracing have been given still more momentum by the news that Massachusetts and other states are working with the Boston-based nonprofit health care organization Partners in Health to staff up their contact tracing programs. Co-founded in 1987 by Paul Farmer, PIH is best known for its work in Haiti combatting HIV and AIDS. But recently, as it has gotten involved in contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic, PIH has become far more sinister for many conservatives and conspiracy theorists. Why? Because the Clinton Foundation and George Soros have funded it.
Fort Russ News, the pro-Russian media arm of the Belgrade-based Center for Syncretic Studies, published one of the weirder pieces of misinformation about PIH and its contact tracing work in Massachusetts. Its story entitled, “Revealed: Massachusetts Contact Tracing NGO Part Of Clinton Pedophile Ring In Haiti,” claimed PIH is “connected to child abduction and pedophilia trafficking in Haiti via the Clinton Foundation, to operate in the state as a Contact Tracing organization.” This one doesn’t seem to have really have gone viral with the same intensity as the pizzagate conspiracy did years ago, but variations on it have bubbled up to the mainstream.
On May 21, a local TV reporter asked Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) why the state was contracting with PIH, not because of its connections to the Clintons, but because its website says its vision is “to rectify ‘structural violence of capitalism.’”
“Contact tracing seems to be part of a larger social agenda for Partners In Health,” Jack Windsor, a reporter with WMFD TV in Mansfield told the governor. “Can you tell us why you chose to partner with an organization that demonizes capitalism and seems to be rooted in liberation theology based on Marxist ideals?” DeWine explained patiently that ideology in this case didn’t matter. “What I’m interested in is getting things done,” he said, pointing out that PIH has “done this type of work not only in the United States, but around the world. They’re pretty darn good at it.”
Gurley, the Hopkins epidemiologist who taught my class, is baffled by all of the political resistance to contact tracing and the conspiracy theories about it. “Conspiracies usually have a goal,” she said in an interview with Mother Jones. “I’m not quite sure what the goal of the conspiracy is.”
If you spend some time on the “reopen” protest Facebook groups, it becomes clear that a fair number of people believe one goal of contact-tracing is to take people’s children away. For instance, a woman in the Reopen Maryland group, which boasts nearly 27,000 members, recently posted that her daughter is a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients and recently caught the virus herself. The woman was caring for her grandchildren while her daughter was quarantined. But, she wrote, “[T]he fu..ing health department keeps calling me for my home address I refuse to give it to them in no way do they need to know this information I’m sure they will find it out but I’m sick of all this bullshit that the government thinks they can put us through anyone else been through this we need to get open and back to normal this shot pisses me off invasion of privacy.”
“Don’t give them shit they will come take the kids. I wouldn’t even tell the doctor I thought I had it unless I was about to die and needed to go to the hospital,” counsels one poster. Another woman says she’d fire a warning shot with her Smith & Wesson at anyone who comes on her property and won’t leave. She writes, “DEFY all contact tracing efforts. Not only will they track you, they will track any and every person you come into contact with for 10 minutes or more. Turn off automatic updates, as they can download the tracing app WITHOUT your consent or knowledge. This is complete over reach [sic] and it must be STOPPED AND THWARTED!!!”
As I learned from the Hopkins contact tracing class, the first thing the health department case workers are supposed to do is confirm the address of the individual they’re calling—for good reason. They don’t want to inadvertently give out confidential medical information to the wrong person. Nonetheless, the post set off a firestorm in the group, generating more than 200 comments from people urging the woman to take the kids on the run, or at the very least to put some privacy settings on her Facebook page. Here’s a sampling of some representative responses: “I have no doubt they would show up at the house and demand to test everyone, and if any adult tested positive they would put the kids into the social services system,” wrote one woman, to which someone else responded, “That is EXACTLY the plan!!! DO NOT GIVE ANY INFO!!!!!!”
The Massachusetts health department did not respond to questions from Mother Jones about whether its contact tracing program is tied to a Clinton pedophile ring. But rumors in eastern Washington and Idaho about quarantine camps have been so rampant that the leaders of the Washington State public health department had to put out an official statement on May 15 debunking them. “We believe any facilities included in local health plans are most likely to be used by people who are willing to voluntarily isolate or quarantine but don’t have a safe place available to do so,” they said.
So far, the conspiracy theories don’t seem to be affecting the contact tracing work, says the Washington health department’s Maria Courogen. “People are generally interested in protecting their families,” she says. “They tend to be cooperative.” Like Gurley, she doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. After all, complying with any part of contact tracing is entirely voluntary. “We give people the option of not answering the questions,” she says. “Nothing happens if they decide to hang up on us.”