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Pa. defends new, no-bid deal for contact tracing

Pennsylvania health officials on Wednesday defended their decision to award another no-bid deal for COVID-19 contact tracing after a serious data breach involving the state’s previous vendor, calling it an urgent priority with cases rising and schools preparing to reopen for fall.

The Department of Health awarded a contract to Public Consulting Group that state officials expect to run around $9 million but could balloon to $34 million if the coronavirus becomes widespread again. Health officials hired the Boston-based company through an emergency procurement, allowing them to bypass normal contracting procedures.

That’s the same process that state officials used to hire the first vendor, Atlanta-based Insight Global, which the Health Department fired in May after company employees compromised the private data of more than 70,000 residents. Both Insight Global and the Health Department are facing litigation over the breach.

Contact tracers identify people who have been exposed to the coronavirus so they can quarantine.

At a hearing Wednesday, Senate Republicans questioned the need for another no-bid contract, given that most Pennsylvania adults have been vaccinated and cases remain comparatively low. GOP lawmakers said the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has made excessive use of emergency contracts during the pandemic, with the Health Department alone awarding 39 contracts valued at more than $200 million.

Such contracts come with “very little oversight, very little transparency and very little accountability,” said GOP Sen. Michele Brooks of Mercer County.

Health Department officials pushed back, saying all vendors are held to the same standards regardless of how they are hired. They said they had to move fast to get a new company in place to perform contact tracing in time for the beginning of the school year.

“Contact tracing is more important now than ever given the limited mitigation that’s currently in place, and the threat of the delta variant,” the more contagious strain of COVID-19 that is sweeping across the U.S., said Alison Beam, the state’s acting health secretary.

Statewide, new virus cases are up 135% over the past two weeks, to an average of about 382 per day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

That’s still a fraction of the COVID-19 infections that Pennsylvania was reporting in December, at the height of the pandemic and before vaccines became widely available. But state health officials said contact tracing is vitally important to keep a lid on new outbreaks.

“We can talk about the cost of this contract but … I want to make sure everyone recognizes that we are talking about saving people from dying of COVID,” said Democratic Sen. John Kane of Chester County.

Health Department officials said that Public Consulting Group won high marks from other states where it performs contact tracing, and has shown an ability to safeguard sensitive data. Officials said the company will use the state’s internal, secure contact tracing and management system.

“We are taking steps to earn Pennsylvanians’ trust,” Beam told senators.

The state moved to replace Insight Global after that company’s employees used unauthorized Google accounts — readily viewable online — to store names, phone numbers, email addresses, COVID-19 exposure status, sexual orientations and other information about residents who had been reached for contact tracing. Insight Global has acknowledged it mishandled sensitive data and apologized.

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