New York State lawmakers unanimously passed legislation (A10500C/S8450C) to protect New Yorkers cooperating with contact tracing efforts from having their data used against them in court proceedings or administrative hearings. Once enacted, the law will also ban police and immigration authorities from serving as contact tracers or otherwise obtaining contact tracing information. The bill waits for Governor Cuomo's signature.
In May, with New York particularly hard hit by the pandemic, state health officials launched a robust contact tracing program. Trained contact tracers work with exposed New Yorkers to track and contain the virus's spread. They also help exposed people with finding resources they need as they self-quarantine–including groceries, child care, and medical assistance.
Effective contact tracing requires honest participation from exposed New Yorkers and trust between impacted residents and government health officials. While officials may assert that the information will be kept confidential, fear of misused personal information chills New Yorkers' participation in these critical life-saving efforts. This is of greatest concern in New York's communities of color and migrant communities, which have been particularly hard hit by both the virus and systemic bias. Concern over biased policing and harsh immigration enforcement has led many to worry about how sensitive information needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic might be shared beyond agencies charged with protecting public health.
Public health officials are engaged in important work to contain the spread of COVID-19. This includes collecting and analyzing personal information about large numbers of identifiable people, including their health, travel, and personal relationships. However, many sensitive inferences can be drawn from a visit to a medical clinic, immigration attorney's office, religious institution, or a protest planning meeting. Police and ICE should not collect or obtain this COVID-related information.
New measures taken to battle the pandemic must be "necessary and proportionate" to society's needs in fighting the virus. Assuring that the sensitive information collected will only be used to protect public health is critical to striking that balance and encouraging candid cooperation from affected New Yorkers. It's time for Governor Cuomo to join state lawmakers in making sure that fear doesn't exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis by chilling critical trust and cooperation. It’s time for Governor Cuomo to sign A10500C/S8450C into law.