Pennsylvania well being officers on Wednesday defended their determination to award one other no-bid deal for COVID-19 contact tracing after a severe information breach involving the state’s earlier vendor, calling it an pressing precedence with instances rising and faculties getting ready to reopen for fall.

The Division of Well being awarded a contract to Public Consulting Group that state officers anticipate to run round $9 million however may balloon to $34 million if the coronavirus turns into widespread once more. Well being officers employed the Boston-based firm by means of an emergency procurement, permitting them to bypass regular contracting procedures.

That is the identical course of that state officers used to rent the primary vendor, Atlanta-based Perception International, which the Well being Division fired in May after firm workers compromised the personal information of greater than 70,000 residents. Each Perception International and the Well being Division are facing litigation over the breach.

Contact tracers establish individuals who have been uncovered to the coronavirus to allow them to quarantine.

At a listening to Wednesday, Senate Republicans questioned the necessity for one more no-bid contract, given that almost all Pennsylvania adults have been vaccinated and instances stay comparatively low. GOP lawmakers stated the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has made extreme use of emergency contracts through the pandemic, with the Well being Division alone awarding 39 contracts valued at greater than $200 million.

Such contracts include “little or no oversight, little or no transparency and little or no accountability,” stated GOP Sen. Michele Brooks of Mercer County.

Well being Division officers pushed again, saying all distributors are held to the identical requirements no matter how they’re employed. They stated they needed to transfer quick to get a brand new firm in place to carry out contact tracing in time for the start of the varsity 12 months.

“Contact tracing is extra vital now than ever given the restricted mitigation that’s at present in place, and the specter of the delta variant,” the extra contagious pressure of COVID-19 that’s sweeping across the U.S., stated Alison Beam, the state’s appearing well being secretary.

Statewide, new virus instances are up 135% over the previous two weeks, to a median of about 382 per day, in keeping with information from Johns Hopkins College Middle for Programs Science and Engineering.

That’s nonetheless a fraction of the COVID-19 infections that Pennsylvania was reporting in December, on the peak of the pandemic and earlier than vaccines turned broadly obtainable. However state well being officers stated contact tracing is vitally vital to maintain a lid on new outbreaks.

“We are able to discuss the price of this contract however … I wish to ensure that everybody acknowledges that we’re speaking about saving folks from dying of COVID,” stated Democratic Sen. John Kane of Chester County.

Well being Division officers stated that Public Consulting Group gained excessive marks from different states the place it performs contact tracing, and has proven a capability to safeguard delicate information. Officers stated the corporate will use the state’s inner, safe contact tracing and administration system.

“We’re taking steps to earn Pennsylvanians’ belief,” Beam advised senators.

The state moved to switch Perception International after that firm’s workers used unauthorized Google accounts — readily viewable on-line — to retailer names, cellphone numbers, electronic mail addresses, COVID-19 publicity standing, sexual orientations and different details about residents who had been reached for contact tracing. Perception International has acknowledged it mishandled delicate information and apologized.

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