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Source: United States House of Representatives – Congresswoman Diana DeGette (First District of Colorado)

Apr 30, 2020

Press Release

Letter to Azar warns that lack of national strategy could cause confusion, inefficiencies and privacy issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and other leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee raised serious concerns today over the nation’s contact tracing capacity and called on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to develop a national strategy to ramp up this critical component of the coronavirus response.

“We write to express serious concerns regarding the Trump Administration’s lack of a coordinated and comprehensive plan to increase the nation’s contact tracing capacity in response to the coronavirus,” Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair DeGette, Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Health Subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo (D-CA) wrote to Azar. “To stop the spread of the virus and safely reopen America’s communities and economy, government officials and public health experts have stressed the need to dramatically increase COVID-19 contact tracing resources.”

Earlier this week, the Trump administration released a “Blueprint for Testing Plans and Rapid Response Programs.” However, the document failed to include a nationwide strategy with a centralized coordinator to integrate contact tracing efforts into the broader coronavirus response.

In today’s letter to Azar, the lawmakers voiced concern that the lack of a unified national strategy could result in duplicative or redundant workstreams among state and local public health departments at a time when resources are already limited. As public health officials increasingly turn to technology for contact tracing, the lawmakers are also concerned about potential privacy concerns.

“As communities start to reopen portions of their economies, it is critical that the Trump Administration bring all the necessary tools, resources, and coordination capabilities together to articulate and manage a national contact tracing strategy,” the committee leaders added.  “Further, given the challenges and confusion we have seen over the past several months with the Administration’s overall approach to this unfolding pandemic, it is also essential that the Administration designate a qualified senior coordinator to oversee its execution.”

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, state and local health departments in the United States had fewer than 2,000 workers nationwide doing contact tracing. This falls far short of the additional 100,000 contact tracers that public health experts estimate are needed across the country to help contain the virus.

As part of their inquiry, the committee leaders requested answers by May 14, 2020 to a series of questions, including:

  • Is any member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force charged with coordinating national COVID-19 surveillance efforts, including contact tracing?
  • Has HHS identified any goals with regard to expanding COVID-19 contact tracing capacity in the United States?
  • How is HHS coordinating among federal departments and with state, local, territorial and tribal health departments to expand the capability and capacity of public health workforces and their contact tracing efforts?
  • Is HHS or another agency considering using or recommending any digital contact tracing tools or other technology, such as smartphone applications that use location data or Bluetooth signaling, to assist in COVID-19 contact tracing efforts?

A PDF copy of the letter is available here.