In an effort to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Linn County Health Department has asked businesses to keep track of patrons who visit their premises for the next month.
By compiling such a list, health officials are hoping that if more confirmed cases occur, they can then alert those who may have crossed paths and come in contact with the virus.
Called “contact tracing,” the effort helps break the chain of infection. The more isolated the virus, the less likely it will infiltrate a community, reasoned Dr. Jay Allen, public health officer of the Linn County Health Department when he issued the request that took effect May 4.
As of Sunday, Linn County has had six confirmed cases of COVID-19. State numbers have skyrocketed to more than 7,000.
Two locals took exception to the directive and on Sunday filed a federal lawsuit against the county and Dr. Allen.
Plaintiffs are Jackie Taylor, editor and publisher of the Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, a restaurateur in La Cygne.
The right-wing Kansas Policy Institute’s legal arm is representing Taylor and Hisel, who say they want the health department’s order blocked, maintaining it infringes on their Constitutional rights, specifically the Fourth and 14th Amendments.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. The 14th Amendment — best known for granting former slaves their Constitutional rights — also ensures that no state shall deprive a person of “life, liberty or property,” including a person’s right to privacy.
This is the flashpoint of the debate: the welfare of the public’s health against the alleged infringement of our personal liberties.
“We have a great deal of trust in our county officials, but this just goes too far,” Taylor said in a story reported by the Topeka Capital-Journal. “COVID is serious, but we can’t let our most basic rights be eroded.”
Taylor and Hisel might have a case if every state in the nation weren’t in the process of hiring contact tracers to do the very thing Linn County officials have asked their local citizens to do.
Almost 70,000 such workers — 400 in Kansas — are being trained to identify those who test positive for COVID-19, track down their contacts and then help both the sick person and those who were exposed isolate themselves.
Without a federal plan to rely on, the governors see it as one of the few proactive measures they can take to help contain the spread of the virus.
The litigiously minded jumped at Linn County’s perhaps unusual request as an opportunity to make headlines.
The community-minded, however, were more generous.
It would be “terribly helpful,” said Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
In our mind, Taylor and Hisel are exaggerating the dangers. A month’s log of visitors — which may or may not be requested by the health department — does not portend a threat to a citizen’s right to privacy. Nor does it present “serious jeopardy” to our basic rights.
Both accusations are nothing short of fearmongering.
And to infer that the health department would be reckless with the information is unwarranted.
As a health director, Dr. Allen is trying to protect Linn County citizens from a global pandemic that as yet has no treatment or cure. Better to err on the side of caution than recklessness.