In grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, one point can be easy to overlook.
We don’t have many reliable tools to slow the spread of the outbreak.
Essentially, we have three methods. First, we can stay far away from one another — that’s known as social distancing. Second, we can wear face coverings, or masks. And finally, public health departments can do what’s known as contact tracing.
The practice is not a new one; according to health officials it goes back hundreds of years. Essentially, contact tracing is an attempt to locate all of the people that someone with an illness has had contact with while infectious. This allows them to quarantine and be tested for the illness, disrupting its wider spread.
In our hyper-fractured times, however, the practice itself has been criticized as infringing on people’s civil liberties, especially smartphone apps being developed that can track users’ movements. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, in fact, supported restrictions to contact tracing in recent legislation, making it entirely voluntary.
"The sheer scope and unregulated nature of contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic have left many Kansans concerned about the procedure and about how collected information may be used," Schmidt wrote in a news release last month. "With this new statute, Kansas will put in place enforceable statutory protections specifically to protect citizens’ privacy and civil liberties during COVID-19 contact tracing."
This is dangerous nonsense.
Everyone understands that going back to a full lockdown would be destructive to the economy and personal well-being of Kansas. If we want to avoid that, we have to wear masks — which has caused its own bizarre controversies outside the scope of this editorial — and we have to contact trace. Privacy and civil liberties are mainly valued by those who are alive, after all.
It has long been established that in protecting public health, officials can temporarily supersede other rights. They can close businesses. They can restrict gatherings. And they can use the force of the law to make people comply.
Contact tracing is a way to preserve public health that prevent more onerous measures. Public health authorities should have all the tools they need to make it work. If Kansans don’t believe they should participate — or look to the attorney general for justifications not to — they could end up making Kansas sicker and the pandemic take longer.
Perhaps respecting "concerns" from Kansans is worth the restrictions. But if it leads to another round of lockdowns, perhaps it wasn’t.