Originally published in Detroit Free Press

The first wave of COVID-19 took an enormous toll on New York. As the government scrambled to respond, the state reeled: Sirens echoed through our streets, nursing home communities were devastated, and morgues filled with hundreds of victims daily. Each day our leaders hesitated to close schools, courts, businesses and offices wound up costing thousands of lives.

We have paid a hideous price for that hesitation, but for a moment, those grim days are in the rearview mirror. Thanks to a government response that finally met the challenge and to New Yorkers taking necessary precautions, the positive infection rate dropped to 1% or lower across most of the state. The fight now is to maintain and build upon this success, to hold the sirens of April at bay.

We must learn from the mistakes of this spring and act swiftly to use all of the tools at our disposal. Short of a vaccine, contact tracing is our most powerful tool.

Unfortunately, contact tracing is off to a slow start. Barely one-third of people who have tested positive have responded to contact tracers’ inquiries seeking to determine with whom they came into contact, information that’s vital to chasing down viral spread and preventing isolated instances from becoming wider outbreaks. Everyone knows contact tracing is dependent on near-universal participation to stymie COVID-19′s spread.

New Yorkers’ justifiable distrust of our institutions — particularly of law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — has hampered participation. People question how intimate data provided to contact tracers, which includes information about where they go and who they see, is shared. ICE and the police have shown a willingness to surveil communities and weaponize personal data against them.

As a public defender and a reverend in upper Manhattan, we have seen the damage law enforcement practices have inflicted on our community and the fear it has sown.

The solution is clear: New York must draw a bright line between contact tracing and law enforcement and guarantee that cooperation with contact tracers will have no negative impact on participants’ lives.

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