Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration hired a tech firm known for working with Democratic campaigns to track contact information about residents as part of the state’s efforts to trace coronavirus cases.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services contracted with EveryAction VAN to “provide software to help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts” as it expands its efforts to identify residents who have been exposed to the coronavirus, the department said Monday in a statement.
EveryAction VAN is the campaign software arm of tech firm NGP VAN, which describes itself as “the leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations.”
The health department said the strategy “involves identifying those affected by COVID-19 and interviewing friends, families and others near that person about their contacts and symptoms.”
“Contact tracing is an essential public health tool and will help determine and limit the spread of COVID-19 in our state,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the department’s chief medical executive and chief deputy for health.
The contract was reportedly canceled after just one day, however, and was not approved State Emergency Operations Center, Whitmer’s office said. Following pressure from state Republicans, the administration said it would seek the services of a different software company for the project.
A Livingston County Commissioner first noticed the Whitmer administration’s decision to hire EveryAction VAN when he volunteered to help with Michigan’s contact tracing initiative and was reading through training materials. Wes Nakagiri, a Republican member of the District 3 Board of Commissioners, released a statement saying he suspected confidential personal medical information of Michigan citizens would be shared with Democratic political candidates.
Nakagiri accused the administration of concocting an “insidiously clever and deceitful way to take political advantage of the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes,” adding that the “scheme” is an “egregious violation of the public trust.”
“It is an outrage that the Whitmer Administration would orchestrate a scheme which takes advantage of humanitarian volunteers and vulnerable citizens while eroding trust in our public health system. She needs to focus more time on resolving the COVID-19 crisis, and less time on seeking political gain,” said Nakagiri, who also serves as chairman of Livingston County’s General Government and Health and Human Services Committee.
Unless those in charge of Michigan’s contact tracing efforts “straighten out the confidentiality issues,” Nakagiri said he “cannot in good conscience” participate and will find another avenue to volunteer, he told National Review.
“They’re using a political entity,” he said, adding that he believes the firm is “not being fully truthful” in saying they do not have access to residents’ information. “It should be troubling to everybody, Democrat or Republican.”
A representative for Michigan’s health department, Bob Wheaton, denied Nakagiri’s allegations, saying “MDHHS has strict policies in place to prohibit the sharing of any protected health information,” according to radio station WHMI.
Max Kamin-Cross, vice president of strategic projects for NGP VAN, also denied that the company deals with medical data or has the capacity for contact tracing, saying the firm provides systems for nonprofits to organize volunteers, according to the radio station’s report.