Why we need the federal government in response to COVID

My story in The Daily Poster shows what happens when the federal government goes missing in action.

Happy election eve, I suppose. Are y’all nervous about the election? I sure am.

Last week, I wrote a bit about Donald Trump, who has made our choice if not our outcome as clear as possibly any president ever could. Today, we are reminded that this is not about one person. I understand why people are voting for Donald Trump, and working for his defeat is not about the man but the idea that only some get to benefit while others languish.

Whomever wins, the real work of ensuring a better, more honest leadership and results will begin in the days, weeks, months and years to come. Working toward a better world is the work of a lifetime, and, I’m trying to remind myself, hardly measured in election cycles.

Today, a look at a story my buddy Justin Glawe and I wrote for The Daily Poster, David Sirota’s kick-ass new publication. Sirota is known as Bernie Sanders’ former communications guru but his journalistic bona fides are unmatched in terms of digging to expose the Democratic Party’s corruption and a clear pen when it comes to public pension funds that enrich the well-connected.

Our story is rooted in findings from reading emails from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, obtained by a public records request, as officials there designed the state’s new COVID-19 contact tracing application for smartphones using Apple and Google’s framework.

The federal government, often unseen and maligned, can and should play a productive role in seeking to combat this pandemic. No result will be perfect, and if Joe Biden is elected, the work to combat a pandemic will be a long, difficult road no matter what.

But we have seen what happens with an absence of federal leadership. And communications I obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Health regarding the rollout of its new COVID application helps show the stakes.


Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash.

Four key contact tracing takeaways

Communications obtained under a public records request from the Pennsylvania Department of Health show a lot about what’s happening right now in our current health crisis.

The private sector, at this moment, is doing more than the federal government. But they can and will only do so much. Combatting this virus will take a combination of personal responsibility and government action.

One thing is clear to me and the experts: if we are ever going to beat or even control this difficult virus, we have to begin a robust program of contact tracing, isolating people who have the virus and figuring out who else might have it before they infect others. There will be pockets of COVID for months and (sigh) years to come. People are tired; I’m tired. But it’s possible that we can begin to return to normal life — and, importantly for the economy and parents’ sanity, children safely back in schools — with ramped up testing and aggressive contact tracing.

A new tool from Apple and Google could help with that, which is why Pennsylvania rolled out a new phone app that works with Bluetooth proximity technology to notify those who have been around someone who has tested positive for the virus. This way, people who previously didn’t know they had been exposed could quarantine and let their close contacts know to be careful and to look for symptoms.

The emails gave us a behind the scenes look at this process. Here are a few takeaways:

  1. The vaunted Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is a bystander in this health crisis.

The CDC has more than 10,000 employees. And yet as the tiny team of health officials in Pennsylvania desperately seek answers around privacy, health and technology for their new app — of course, the first time this has ever been done — the CDC takes a back seat to the state, the communications show.

This is, of course, insane. An app in Pennsylvania or any other state will only be succesful if it works across state lines and federal coordination, research and help could help make this or any other contact tracing initiative successful. As we wrote:

The CDC is sometimes present in the emails, receiving status updates or coordinating calls among state health officials. But overall the communications show a stark lack of leadership and coordination from the one federal agency that could ensure a fair test for the new technology and, if it proved workable, would be able to quickly implement a digital contact tracing system nationally.

“If I were to say to you, ‘in the course of a never-in-a-hundred-years pandemic that there was technology available to aid in the public health response, do you think the federal government should lead?’ I would say, ‘of course, who else?’” Jeff Kahn, the director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, said. “Viruses don’t care about state borders. To me it’s just one more example of the failure of the federal response.”

  1. Contact tracing is going to continue to be a huge problem

This has been reported on but is still a bit under the radar. While hiring hundreds of contact tracers would help, I wonder if a transition to a technology-based approach (assuming privacy and other concerns are worked out) will be our best hope for a national strategy around COVID and contact tracing to assist the human effort. GOP-led states also have an aversion to contact tracers but would perhaps be more comfortable with a more hands-off approach that lets individuals opt-in if they want to.

More:

In April, Apple and Google made a framework available that would allow phone users on either company’s operating systems to participate in an exposure notification program that would use Bluetooth technology to constantly ping nearby phones. If a person received a positive diagnosis, they can choose to have their anonymized device added to the list of positively diagnosed users. Those whose phones had been in close proximity would then automatically get an alert that they’d been exposed. So far, 13 states have made the technology available with different criteria, according to 9 to 5 Mac.

Four states — California, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington — as well as Washington, D.C. have apps in development. But in many places, especially in the South and Republican-led states, contact tracing lags woefully behind, according to Test and Trace, a volunteer-based website led by members of the tech industry and academia.

  1. Even a “libertarian” or private sector plan for contact tracing apparently failed to convince South Carolina’s leaders on a bluetooth-enabled approach to contact tracing.

I hope we see more on South Carolina’s physical “beacon” plan and how facility and school managers could be essentially put in charge of their own contact tracing. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster was presented with such a plan in May but I can’t find any news that he or anyone else did anything about it.

The lead author of the plan from the Medical University of South Carolina didn’t want to discuss it with me because it remains a “sensitive issue” with the Republican legislature.

It’s a reminder that some people believe using the government for anything — including helping in a public health crisis — is against new “conservative” principles.

State officials were presented with a plan to implement the Apple-Google framework in a way that favored the private sector and left the government mostly out of the process, according to an analysis of documents obtained under a separate South Carolina open records request.

But the governor’s office and legislature have apparently had no public debate about the plan and have failed to implement it. The details of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) plan, called “SC-is-safer-together Contact Notification System,” have not been previously reported.

The program would work like this: Those who are directed to get a COVID-19 test would be asked by their medical provider to download an app on their phone. The app would use the Apple-Google framework in conjunction with health facilities’ health records to anonymously notify other app users if a person had tested positive. It would then track the infected person’s progress, including further tests.

  1. State officials are desperate.

The communications I received feature a Pennsylvania deputy health secretary who is desperate for answers in trying to quickly stand up this new tool for Pennsylvanians.

A more aggressive federal approach would mean faster answers for everyone. And that could save lives.

She wrote to the CDC in late June that the application could help and that the state needed to move quickly as hospitalizations were on the rise. “With schools and colleges openings around August and after utilizing all the tools in the toolbox, our leadership is keen on utilizing this tool,” she said.

The CDC, of course, could have very well been the one sending a similar email.

“If it was just a question of contact tracing, you could give [the Trump administration] the benefit of the doubt, but the entire response to this virus has been insufficient,” [health expert] Kahn said. “Yes, there should be a coordinated response from the federal government on digital contact tracing. Instead, tech companies have done the work of the CDC.”


One last word

Chicago human rights journalist Jamie Kalven shared the wise words of writer Arundhati Roy as a way of trying to make sense of the insanity, and I will do the same on this election eve in hopes of a better future.

What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

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