New York’s Travel Quarantine Police Are Not Tracking You

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They are, however, trying to save your life. So let them.

Crossing state lines isn’t what it used to be. As many Americans are now discovering, traveling or relocating during a pandemic comes with an elevated level of stress, especially when reaching your destination means submitting to a 14-day quarantine.

Welcome to New York. Since June 1, the state has been running a contact-tracing program involving more than 3,000 workers and public health officials, all focused on fighting the spread of Covid-19 by encouraging widespread testing and enforcing the isolation of anyone arriving from 33 states and two U.S. territories with infection rates 10 percent or higher.

There’s just one problem. Despite de Blasio’s mayoral threat of a $10,000 fine for failing to quarantine—enforcement isn’t happening.

The Sheriff’s office has yet to issue any fines, according to the NYC Health Department. And no one is technically tracking your whereabouts. “We don’t utilize GPS or Bluetooth technology to look at exposure. We rely on contact tracers to call and talk with confirmed cases and contacts,” writes Karla Griffith, assistant director at NYC Health + Hospitals.

What Travelers Experience 

This may come as a surprise to anyone who participated in the Big Apple quarantine, still wondering if their privacy has been invaded. You can see why; being contacted by state actors every day for 14 days can feel very Big Brother. But this isn’t high-tech, real-time surveillance. It’s a daily stream of phone calls and text messages. 

Right now, anyone entering the state via plane, train, or automobile may meet a uniformed “enforcement team” doling out the New York State Department of Health travel form, and told that anyone refusing to fill it out “will be subject to a $2,000 fine and may be brought to a hearing and ordered to complete mandatory quarantine.”

Even if, by chance, you bypass a traveler checkpoint, you will have to fill out the traveler form at any NY hotel or short-term rental like Airbnb under an executive order signed Tuesday by Mayor de Blasio. The order requires guests to fill out the form before they can enter their room. “If they don’t have that form from the traveler, they should not give them access to that room, period,” de Blasio said at his daily press briefing.

Should is the operative word. The contact tracing program has thus far been a three steps forward, two steps back operation. De Blasio’s presser is simply the most recent in a string of signs that show how difficult it is to maintain mass compliance without real punishment. 

Nevertheless, after you’ve handed over your name, date of birth, gender identity, destination address, length of stay, home address, phone number and email address, you’ll also be asked if you’ve been in contact with anyone with Covid, who you’re staying with, whether you have private sleeping quarters, access to a private bathroom, and enough food to get you through the quarantine period (without having to physically go out for it). If not, contact tracers will offer to arrange food delivery. 

Health officials do not and will not, however, ask for your social security number or require you to download any sort of tracking application onto your mobile device. Many find this service to be comforting in the Covid era.

“It’s like having a Covid concierge. They checked in on us daily, and gave us information on where to get tested should we need it,” said Aaron Kisor, Vice President Commercial Finance at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “It was voluntary for me to quarantine, but it’s the right thing to do. We wanted to do the right thing.” In the business of alcohol distribution, Kisor is considered an essential worker, which means the state of New York will allow him to report to the office. After relocating his family of four up from Florida, he cared first and foremost about safety.

The question is whether the program’s promise of safety is providing a false sense of security. Clearly, state officials are more interested in finding out what they can accomplish by encouraging good behavior, rather than punishing bad actors. Can a program built on trust really succeed?

The Results Are Telling

New York’s contact tracing program is becoming a kind of case-study for the containment of infectious diseases. The results are in: as of today, New York’s statewide coronavirus cases total 426,571. This marks the 11th straight day with an infection rate below 1 percent, after having reported the highest rates in the country earlier this year. Now, Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio get to tout their home state as “leading the nation” in Covid-containment.

Tell that to the sick and dying. NY’s low-tech tracing program is far from foolproof and defections are untenable, leading many to believe that privacy invasion is the logical next step. Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using opt-in Bluetooth or GPS technologies via smartphone apps to help identify more contacts and notify them of exposure “faster than traditional contact tracing alone.”

Yet, even that step is problematic. In more than 14 countries around the world, including England, France, Germany, and Ireland, voluntary smartphone apps have proven ineffective in stopping the spread according to researchers and public health officials.

There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the tech itself is a big variable. GPS-based contact tracing apps track a phone’s location at all times, while Bluetooth-based ones just track proximity to other phones without necessarily revealing a person’s movements. Second, privacy laws play a major role in determining what your local government will allow. Lastly, these apps are voluntary and brand new, which means collecting data on the percentage of population needed to effectively fight a pandemic is theoretically impossible.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. There’s that word again—should. Providing information to contact tracers is now a question of morality. Fill out the quarantine form, wear a mask, wash your hands, answer the phone, and, if it’s available in your state—download the tracking app. It’s not a perfect system. But the more we collectively participate, the greater our chances are of saving lives.

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