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Contact Tracing Is A Fiasco Rejected By Most Americans

Black Lives Matter Protest in DC on June 6, 2020. Ted Eytan/Flickr.

If reopening America is contingent on robust contact tracing then America will never reopen.


There were supposed to be armies. Grand armies of contact tracers crisscrossing every county in the country on the hunt for the Chinese virus. This was the key we were told to a safe reopening, they have been telling us this since back when they still told us not to wear masks. Soldiers in this army would interview anyone who tested positive and track down the people they spent time with.

Supposedly serious people with TV shows and everything said with straight faces that we might need 100,000 contact tracers, maybe more, maybe everyone needs to be a contact tracer. In New York, Michael Bloomberg stepped out of ubiquitous presidential ads (remember that?) right into being charged with leading the new public health Manhattan Project. The result looks more like a middling 4th grade science fair entry.

Oregon reported last week that that the state has no idea how many contact tracers it has in the field. In New York, several upstate counties are opting out of the program because their own local policies work better for them. Meanwhile in Gotham, Mayor Bill de Blasio betrayed the deeply unserious nature of his tracing efforts by telling his tracers not to ask if people who test positive had been at a political protest.

The rationale used by the most unpopular mayor in the history of cities was basically that its too many people trace anyway. So, first of all, most people don’t attend protests all by themselves, many go in groups, why on earth would a contact tracer not need to know about those people? Is this another case where social justice provides immunity to the virus? The upshot is that everyone has to tell the state everyone they come in contact with, unless you went to a protest, then you’re good.

So the brick and mortar, pavement-crunching approach to contact tracing is off to a horrible start. Lo and behold people aren’t nuts about public officials coming to their house to grill them on their associations. Good. But, could there be another way? Could technology come to the rescue as it has begun to do in other countries? No.

Last week a poll showed that 7 in 10 Americans would decline to install a contact-tracing app on their phone. This at a time in American life when you can’t get 7 in 10 Americans to agree that people drink coffee in the morning. But the best part of the poll is the other 3.

The 3 who are apoplectic in their indignation. They ask so little, “it’s just an app, and if it saves one life.” There are limits to what the American people will do for safety, having the state track all our movements blows past those limits into the next town.

What has dawned on the American people but has yet to be reflected on by most of our political leaders is that until there is a vaccine we have to accept risk, understand that lives will be lost, and get the country back to normal. The protests proved this beyond any doubt. New York Gov. Cuomo can’t logically tell people not to mingle with drinks on the street and de Blasio can’t tell Jews to get the hell out of the playground while they both celebrate massive protests.

Contact tracing is the road trip to San Francisco that every Gen Xer never took. You’d stay up late, rip some bong hits, plan it all out, where to stop, who to visit, but it never actually happened. Instead you went back to your normal life. Which is exactly what Americans need to do right now.

Those who insist America cannot fully reopen without robust contact tracing are holding the country hostage to a pipe dream. There is a reason why it was America that sparked the protests that destroyed the lockdown all across the world. It is because we are not a very compliant people. Whether in Michigan or in Minnesota and for a variety of reasons, Americans will protest and fight for their basic rights.

If government and scientists want to experiment with contact tracing to learn more about the spread of the virus through volunteers, great, why not. But if they try to make reopening conditional on their vision of complete enough tracing then they are putting roller-skates on a goalpost and keeping us in the dark about when the lights come back on. No more excuses. Open the country.