Public health officials in Rockland County, New York, issued subpoenas with expensive fines attached to force people connected to a coronavirus cluster to speak with contact tracers.
Rockland County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert said county officials issued the subpoenas after the party-goers, all young adults in their 20s, attended a large party in Clarkstown on June 17.
The host of the party had Covid-19 symptoms but held the party anyway, leading to the infection of eight attendees to date, Ruppert said.
After identifying the cluster, contact tracers reached out to those who attended the party to try to get information on who they interacted with and where they have since been in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading. But several party-goers refused to help these efforts, Ruppert said.
“Most people do cooperate with us, but for the smaller number that do not, they have hung up on us. (They have) given us very small amounts of information and then refused to give anything further. (They) have told us they do not want to nor need to provide information,” Ruppert told CNN.
“So we got to the point where, since the information is essential, I needed to send eight subpoenas yesterday to obtain the required information for our contact investigations.”
The subpoenas were punishable by up to $2,000 in fines per day, she said. All eight recipients have already responded.
“It worked,” she said.
Rockland County Executive Ed Day said six people responded Wednesday and two people responded Thursday.
“It’s amazing how smart some people got,” he told CNN. “Everybody is complying and helping us, which is all that we’re trying to have happen, is work with us. We’re not looking to be punitive here.”
The drastic legal maneuvers provide a glimpse into the ongoing difficulties of carrying out contact tracing measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Experts have said that a combination of rapid testing, contact tracing and quarantining the sick can keep coronavirus from spreading through a community.
Rockland County similarly used subpoenas to contain a measles outbreak in 2018-19 that led to 312 confirmed cases, Ruppert said.
Why contact tracing matters
A contact tracer’s role is to reach out to potentially infected people and get information on who they have interacted with, where they have been, and who lives with them, and to try to quarantine them from others before spreading the virus.
The timeliness of that information is “paramount” to stop coronavirus from spreading and keeping New York’s cases down from its earlier peak, Ruppert said.
“There are valid reasons why we need this information, and it will help them and their family members and it will help the public as well,” she said.
She said they try to be understanding and empathetic toward people who resist providing that personal information.
“Some people just don’t maybe understand the importance of this, which, of course, with education we’re trying to explain and have people understand the reason we need to find out who their contacts are, where they have been, when that was, so that we can continue to decrease the number of cases in New York,” she said.
Day said Wednesday that the county is taking this situation seriously and will continue to contact trace and investigate.
“If you get in the way of a health department investigation, I will take – and we will take – every step necessary to ensure that we respond appropriately and we’re talking a serious response,” Day said.
New York, once the epicenter of the pandemic, now has about 49 contact tracers per 100,000 people, the most of any state in the country, according to data from Nephron Research, an independent health care research firm.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that the state’s contact tracing system has quickly identified clusters of cases at a Westchester County graduation event, a Montgomery County aluminum factory, and an Oswego County apple packaging plant.
“Thanks to our contact tracing program we found these clusters quickly, allowing us to address them immediately and help prevent the virus from spreading further,” he said Friday.