The state of Michigan said on Tuesday that it had canceled a contract connected to its coronavirus contact tracing program after the state received backlash for the organization’s connection with Democratic campaigns.
The contract was originally with Every Action VAN, which touts itself as the “leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns,” according to its website. The state had planned to use the organization to help facilitate efforts to perform contact tracing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In contact tracing, volunteers will reach out to those who have a high likelihood of having been exposed to the coronavirus to see if they have symptoms, as well as log their personal information.
Livingston County Commissioner Wes Nakagiri was one of the first to express concern over Michigan’s choice in the organization after he volunteered to be one of the people calling people who have possibly been exposed and logging their information, including both personal and medical information.
“This enables NGP VAN to share this confidential information with both the MDHHS and Democrat candidates,” Nakagiri said in a statement. “This scheme is an insidiously clever and deceitful way to take political advantage of the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes. Providing confidential information collected from contact tracing to Democrat candidates is an egregious violation of the public trust.”
Nakagiri also accused the state of using taxpayer dollars to fund a “scheme which benefits Democrat candidates.”
“While researching this matter I observed a bi-partisan company which would provide free phone and database service to an organization providing emergency response to COVID-19,” he said. “But, ultimately the best way to protect confidential medical information is to bypass a third-party database and enter it directly into the existing Michigan Disease Surveillance System.”
The move was also initially questioned by several Republican politicians.
“Awarding the contract for such a critically important project to an openly partisan political firm raises major questions about Governor Whitmer’s ethics and her priorities,” said Laura Cox, Michigan Republican Party Chairman, in a statement. “In addition to the fact that a partisan company should not be handling a public health crisis, the Michigan Republican Party is extremely concerned with how this data will be used. The fact that there is now the possibility that it will be utilized for partisan ends is deeply troubling.”
The sentiment was echoed by Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-83-Port Huron), who criticized an apparent lack of bid process from the state.
“I want to know what safeguards the governor has in place to ensure the information gathered during this COVID-19 response doesn’t wind up in the hands of any campaigns,” Hernandez said in a statement. “When reading the press release that the administration put out in response to media reports that this was being done, I found myself questioning if the governor is fully aware of which companies are being awarded contracts, or if this was an intentional decision for political gain.”
Tiffany Brown, the spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said the contract should have been approved the by the state’s Emergency Operation Center but was not, according to The Detroit News.
“The state is committed to ensuring this important tracing work can begin quickly to help save lives, while also ensuring that public health data is safe and secure,” Brown told the outlet in a Tuesday afternoon email.
The announcement of the contract with Every Action VAN came in a press release from Michigan’s State Emergency Operation Center.
“How did the Whitmer Administration approve an emergency contract if it did not go through the appropriate government processes?” said Tori Sachs, executive director of Michigan Rising Action, in a statement. “Gov. Whitmer’s office is saying the SEOC didn’t approve the contract, but the announcement of the contract came from the SEOC via email on April 20. Something does not add up and Michigan taxpayers deserve answers.”
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Jordyn Pair is a reporter with The Michigan Star. Follow her on Twitter at @JordynPair. Email her at [email protected]