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In One County, Failure to Cooperate With Coronavirus Trackers Can Result in a Subpoena

Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word subpoena. including key descriptive words.
By Richard Dahl on July 14, 2020 12:34 PM

An important tool in the battle against the coronavirus is effective tracing of people who have been in contact with known carriers of the disease. If public health officials can track down those people and have them self-isolate for 14 days, the spread of the disease can be slowed.

However, effective tracing requires full cooperation of the people who have been exposed. If people who might be infected or who might have been exposed refuse to cooperate, what can officials do about it?

In Rockland County, New York, they came up with an answer: issuing subpoenas. On June 17, at a time when a state order limited public gatherings to 10 people, about 100 people attended a party in that county.

The party's host was showing signs of sickness, but went ahead with the party anyway. Later, the host tested positive for the coronavirus and so did eight guests. Seeking to keep the disease from spreading, county officials sent out disease trackers to find out who else may have been exposed.

They hit a snag. Many of the people refused to cooperate; they hung up the phone and even denied being at the party even when they'd been identified by an attendee.

Frustrated, county officials decided to take action with an unusual step. On July 1, they issued subpoenas to eight people at the party who were not cooperating. They were told that if they didn't respond by the next day, they would face fines of $2,000 per day.

By July 2, all eight had responded, and no additional coronavirus cases were confirmed.

Obstacles to Tracing

The evidence thus far in the fight against coronavirus is suggests that effective tracing is difficult to achieve. On June 1, New York City hired 3,000 people to be tracers, but by mid-month only 35% of the 5,347 city residents who either tested positive or were assumed to be positive provided information about close contacts to the tracers.

Much of the problem, the New York Times notes, is cultural. In some countries, apartment buildings, restaurants, and other private businesses are often required to obtain visitors' personal information, which makes tracing easier.

"In South Korea, for example, people at weddings, funerals, karaoke bars, nightclubs, and internet-gaming parlors write down their names and telephone numbers, and the authorities have been able to draw on cellphone location data, credit card transactions and even closed-circuit video footage to identify and isolate potential contacts," the Times reported.

Subpoenas Appear to be Legal Under Emergency Powers

In the U.S., tracers face a more difficult task, which explains the subpoenas in Rockland County. Those subpoenas did produce rapid results, so it seems likely that other jurisdictions may follow suit — if they legally can.

And James Hodge, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, told Politico that they can.

"What you've got here is a legitimate use of public health emergency powers," Hodge said. "If you don't want to participate in contact tracing, you don't have to. But resisting the mere effort ... can lead authorities to use their subpoena powers, because they've got it."

So, if you get a call from a tracer, it might be best to cooperate. Nobody wants to be subpoenaed.

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