Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature who are skeptical of contact tracing in the coronavirus response spearheaded by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards are advancing legislation to ensure that residents have the right not to participate.
The legislators pushing the measures say their constituents are concerned about contact tracing, a long-standing practice of epidemiologists where state workers call people who have been infected with a contagious disease to trace who they may have come into contact with. The state then calls those people to inform them they may have been exposed — in this case to the novel coronavirus — and advise them how to protect themselves and others.
The efforts by Republican lawmakers come as the Democratic governor continues to hold up contact tracing as a crucial part of the state’s reopening plan. At a news conference Friday, Edwards called the fears about contact tracing, such as privacy concerns, “unfounded,” while also stressing that there will be no mandates on people to take part — or penalties if they refuse.
“This is one of those efforts that I would encourage people to not think along the lines of what you have a right to do or not to do, but what is the right thing to do,” Edwards said.
Rep. Blake Miguez, chair of the House Republican delegation, tacked an amendment to the state’s operating budget Thursday that prohibits money from being spent on any contact tracing program that is mandatory.
The House on Friday passed House Concurrent Resolution 93 by Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, that directs the governor to require those conducting contact tracing to disclose to people it is voluntary and make sure no penalties are put in place for those who don’t participate.
“There are a large group of people who say, mandatory I'm not ok with,” Crews said Thursday during the budget debate. “Voluntary, I may give you some stuff. ... They want to know (penalties) are off the table.”
Edwards’ administration, like other states, has hired several hundred staffers through private firms to conduct contact tracing of those who test positive for the coronavirus. Public health officials and experts say the practice is a vital component of the state’s reopening plans.
The governor said as of Friday, 450 people have been hired to do the work, above the initial goal of 250. The state has pegged the number of contact tracers it needs at about 700, but officials say they will scale up to that number if needed. The Edwards administration says it plans to pay around $15 million to $20 million in federal dollars to four companies to hire contact tracers.
“Obviously this is a very important part of our effort to keep the cases down as we reengage more sectors of our economy,” Edwards said.
As the state reopens, health leaders say the state will need to do expansive testing to identify new cases, as more people are exposed to the virus. That allows for contact tracing to encourage people who were exposed to the virus to isolate or quarantine.
Crews said he doesn’t believe his resolution is out of step with what the governor’s administration is planning to do, but rather is aimed at making sure it doesn’t go any further toward making the program mandatory.
But the efforts illustrate skepticism toward the practice, as several lawmakers say constituents have called their offices, concerned about its implications on privacy, among other things. Contact tracers don’t reveal the identity of the person who exposed others to the virus.
Louisiana is a week into its phase one of reopening, which allowed barber shops, dine-in restaurants, salons and a host of other businesses to operate at 25% capacity — another mandate Republican lawmakers have taken issue with.
Edwards has said the state could enter phase two of reopening — though it is unclear what that looks like — by June 5.
Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, noted Friday that as the state ramps up testing, case numbers will rise. That’s why officials are looking closely at the percentage of tests that come back positive, as well as where those cases are coming from, in deciding whether the state is meeting the criteria to continue reopening.
For instance, mass testing is taking hold at nursing homes, prisons and even crawfish processing facilities where migrant workers have experienced outbreaks at dormitory-like facilities. Billioux noted many of those positive tests will show up in the numbers even though they’re asymptomatic and at times don’t pose a threat to the public.
Billioux declined to offer any details or updated numbers on the outbreaks at crawfish facilities. The state earlier this week confirmed three crawfish farms and processing facilities in the Acadiana region had seen at least 100 people — largely migrant workers living in dorms — test positive, though many were symptomatic. The state Health Department has declined to say where those facilities are located, or provide any updated figures, with Billioux saying Friday officials didn’t want to dissuade people from participating in the state’s effort to tamp down outbreaks.
“As we increase our testing we do expect to have more cases,” Edwards said. “More cases doesn't mean we’re doing poorly with our phased reopening of our economy.”
The governor also said Friday the state has received three allocations of the highly-watched drug Remdesivir, which is being used on patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19. The state has received nearly 8,400 vials — one vial equals one treatment — from the feds and has delivered them to 47 hospitals, Edwards said.
Voting to stress virus tracking is voluntary (59): Reps. Amedee, Bagley, Bourriaque, Butler, Carrier, Coussan, Crews, Davis, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Dwight, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Freiberg, Frieman, Gadberry, Garofalo, Goudeau, Harris, Henry, Hilferty, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Huval, Illg, Ivey, M. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, McCormick, McFarland, McKnight, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Mincey, Muscarello, Nelson, C. Owen, R. Owen, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Seabaugh, St. Blanc, Stefanski, Tarver, Thomas, Turner, Villio, Wheat and Wright.
Voting against HCR 93 (31): Reps Adams, Brass, Brown, Bryant, Carpenter, G. Carter, R. Carter, W. Carter, Cormier, Cox, Duplessis, Freeman, Gaines, Green, Hughes, Jefferson, Jenkins, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marino, Miller, D., Moore, Newell, Pierre, Selders, Thompson and Willard.
Not voting (14): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps. Bacala, Beaullieu, Bishop, Echols, Glover, James, T. Johnson, Magee, Marcelle, Phelps, Stagni, White and Zeringue.