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Mandatory digital contact tracing idea by Aspen councilman raises civil liberties questions

Healthcare providers prepare for their first scheduled appointment at a coronavirus testing location at the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s Aspen Village Location on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
(Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow’s suggestion of mandatory contact tracing via a mobile phone app in which people are required to log their health, and if they are determined to have COVID-19 be forced to isolate, has raised eyebrows with some of his colleagues.

In an email exchange with other council members last month, Mesirow floated the idea and referenced South Korea’s digital contact tracing where if people do not participate they are fined.

The goal is to identify people with symptoms, get them the health care services they need and isolate them to stop the spread COVID-19.

“Hello all. I do not believe we should be waiting for the state to make decisions,” Mesirow wrote in an April 17 email to his fellow council members, referencing an online article forwarded to him from Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. “Some form of comprehensive/mandatory contact tracing is the only proven way to begin to return to normal life and economy without starting back at square one with the virus. An app that is tied to the state of emergency and gets deleted when that disappears is the best option to preserve individual liberties.”

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Councilman Ward Hauenstein wrote in an April 18 response email that he sees mandatory tracing as a “slippery road to loss of freedoms, liberties and privacy, and a police state like enforcement protocol.”

“I agree that a contact tracking app could be an effective tool in controlling the spread of (COVID-19), but at what cost to our freedoms? Are we willing to enforce isolation, physical distancing and group gatherings?” he continued.

“I do want to get our economy going again. I do not want (COVID-19) to overwhelm our hvealth care system locally. However, I have to balance that against the freedoms that our democratic society is based upon.”

The Aspen Times obtained the emails through a Colorado Open Records Act request.

Mesirow responded shortly after, writing that Hauenstein’s description is not a dystopia that he wants, and he does not harbor the same concerns about sharing information.

Mesirow told Hauenstein that he shares the breakdown of every meal he eats with an app that helps maintain his weight; every detail of his heartbeat and sleep patterns with Apple to help increase his lifespan; every step of exercise to prioritize fitness; and every part of his life with the citizens of Aspen online.

“I don’t view any of these as curtailing my freedoms,” he wrote. “I view them as enhancing my freedoms by providing tools to live my life more fully.”

Mesirow last week told The Aspen Times that digital contact tracing is one tool in the public health toolbox that allows those who are sick to isolate and let the healthy continue on with their lives without widespread lockdowns on the economy.

“So everyone else can have a lion’s share of their lives back,” Mesirow said, adding he acknowledges that the decision will be up to the Pitkin County Board of Public Health and the COVID-19 incident management team. “I think this is the way to go. … Me as a citizen, I definitely support some measure of tracing to get some form of our lives back.”

He drove that point home when he wrote in a follow-up email to Hauenstein, “Why punish the freedoms of all unnecessarily?”

Mayor Torre is the only other council member who responded to Mesirow’s email on mandatory contact tracing.

Torre said he is open to a discussion about whether the community has the manpower and whether digital tracing supports the county’s “box-it-in strategy.”

The strategy entails testing people with symptoms, quarantining them until test results indicate they’re positive or negative and isolating them if they test positive. Then investigators must track down at least 90% of the people the symptomatic person was in contact with, quarantine them and isolate each one if they test positive.

The county plans on doing that by using existing government employees, as well as new hires to trace and investigate the movements of individuals who have COVID-19.

So far, 11 people have been trained to do tracing and many more are to follow as the tourism-driven economy begins to reopen with visitors coming here, Peacock said last week.

It’s a 12- to 18-month strategy barring any medical solution like a vaccine, he added.

It will require spending about $2 million this year and next to build the infrastructure to be able to test, trace and isolate every case of COVID-19 that comes to Pitkin County during that time frame.

Based on data from the National Association of County and City Health Officials, local public health leaders figure they will need 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people, Peacock said. That translates to a maximum of 12 contact tracers for a local population of residents and tourists that Peacock and county officials believe will top out at about 40,000 people, or approximately 90% of Aspen and Pitkin County’s average population, he said Thursday.

Through Saturday, there have been 51 confirmed coronavirus cases and two deaths in Pitkin County since the outbreak started, according to the state database.

A budget request to hire more contact tracers is expected to go in front of Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.

Peacock asked other elected officials for financial assistance during last week’s board of public health meeting.

He told the Times that from a public health and reopening the economy standpoint, he feels comfortable with the infrastructure that’s being built.

“We hope there will be technology solutions to make this process more efficient and effective but they have to fit into our community’s values, privacy standards and what’s allowed by law,” Peacock said. “Our tried-and-true right now is to have folks on the ground.”

In his April email exchange with Torre, Mesirow writes that he doesn’t think old-school tracing is sufficient.

While Councilwoman Rachel Richards did not respond to Mesirow’s email soliciting her position on mandatory digital contact tracing, she shared her thoughts with the Times when asked.

She said via email that she thought the exchange between Hauenstein and Mesirow “typifies the transition our country/population is going through with fearless ‘early adopters’ of new technology and older folks who are far less inclined to want any personal information floating through cyberspace.”

Regardless, Richards said she’d be reluctant to go down the path of mandatory digital tracing, given government mandates forcing workers to report to work at meat processing plants despite COVID-19 outbreaks, or attempts to control a woman’s reproductive rights.

“I would be very concerned about any ‘app’ that monitored a woman’s daily health condition that could report ‘likely pregnancy’ to government ‘forced birth’ advocates,” she wrote. “The law of unintended consequences catches up with the best laid plans and what sometimes starts as a dream sometimes ends as a nightmare; the experience of years makes one very cautious.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com


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