Plan to make contact tracing harder rejected by Ohio Senate

State senators rejected a plan Wednesday to make contact tracing — a crucial tool to fighting the spread of the coronavirus and other infectious diseases — much more difficult.

The Ohio Senate voted 21-12 to reject House changes to Senate Bill 31. The House, which voted 59-34 on the bill last week, added changes that would have required written consent from individuals to conduct contact tracing and mandate that people be told participation is voluntary.

State Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, voted in favor of the House changes to SB31. The other senators from the Miami Valley opposed the changes.

Senators opposing the changes to contact tracing said it would hamper use of a valuable tool in controlling infectious diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, meningitis and small pox.

State Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, an emergency room physician, said mandating written consent would over burden the medical system.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How disease detectives work to trace and block virus path

Contact tracing is a basic, go-to tool when trying to contain an outbreak. People who get sick have to get sick from someone, so you can slow the spread of an outbreak if sick people isolate, if the rest of the household quarantines, and if their recent contacts know they had been exposed to a sick person and need to quarantine. Much of contract tracing work is done by phone.

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, described written consent as an easy standard to achieve. But when asked if it would slow down contact tracing, the speaker said he’s never done contact tracing so he doesn’t know.

When asked what public health is, Householder said: “Public health to me means just about every type of health care system that we have. It’s all public.”

Public health measures are designed to prevent health problems at the community level. For example, requiring childhood immunizations helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Requiring restaurants and stores to keep food at certain temperatures prevents food borne illnesses. Taxes and restrictions on tobacco helps prevent people from smoking or prompts them to quit, which can help reduce the incidence of cancer and tobacco-related disease.

The idea of making contact tracing more difficult is the latest push back against public health.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate continue debate on whether Ohio should curb the authority of the state health director, Dr. Amy Acton, who has used a 130-year-old state law to issue sweeping orders. Limiting Acton’s authority is included in at least three pending bills.

RELATED: House moves to limit Acton’s power; DeWine reacts

State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, is sponsoring a bill that would require a two-thirds majority vote by both the House and Senate to enact a mandatory mask order on the public.

Leaders in the GOP-controlled General Assembly have declined to require elected legislators to wear masks in the Statehouse. While most Democrats are wearing them, about one-third of Republicans are doing so.

Lawmakers also have pushed the DeWine administration to re-open the Ohio economy more rapidly.

Gov. Mike DeWine has said he believes Ohio needs to invest more in public health programs.

RELATED: Ohio near the bottom for public health spending per person

About the Author