State changes vendors for COVID-19 data after furor over Democratic-connected firm

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The state of Michigan Tuesday said it would select a different vendor and software platform for the management of thousands of data points related to Michigan's coronavirus contact tracing project. 

The change comes after Republican operatives criticized the choice of a software company with connections to dozens of Democratic candidates to manage the data. Public health officials use contact tracing to identify individuals who may have come into contact with an infected person and subsequently collect more information about them, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The contract should have been approved by the State Emergency Operations Center, but was not, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"The state is committed to ensuring this important tracing work can begin quickly to help save lives, while also ensuring that public health data is safe and secure," Brown said in a Tuesday afternoon email. 

The contract with Great Lakes Community Engagement was signed Monday, but the contract language indicates the work start date was April 1 and the end date was June 1.

However, the contract also said that no services or costs would be incurred "prior to start date or the effective date of the agreement, whichever is later."

Great Lakes Community Engagement was to have received $82,000 for four weeks of work on May 1. A final $112,250 payment was due June 1 for another four weeks of work. 

The state did not immediately say what data, if any, had already been accumulated prior to the cancellation of the contract. It is unclear why the State Emergency Operations Center would have issued the press release announcing the contract if it hadn't approved the agreement. 

As recently as Thursday, the state told The Detroit News no final decision had been made about which software company would be used for its enhanced COVID-19 contact tracing project.

But the state announced Monday the voter/individual contact platform Every Action VAN had been selected to help track information and contacts and organize phone banking related to coronavirus research and response. EveryAction had been contracted with the state through a third party called Great Lakes Community Engagement, which specializes in outreach campaigns.

Great Lakes Community Engagement is connected to Grand Rapids-based K2K Consulting and Kolehouse Strategies, according to state business records. K2K Consulting and Kolehouse Strategies are operated by Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speak during a press conference on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Lansing. The two state officials were updating the public on the Michigan's response to COVID-19.

The state's contact tracing efforts essentially consist of determining who a COVID-19-positive individual may have been in contact with and calling that person up to inform them of exposure and ask them about any symptoms they may be experiencing.

Every Action’s CEO Stu Trevelyan is also chief executive of NGP VAN, according to his Twitter profile. The companies differ in that EveryAction handles nonprofit, corporate and government markets while NGP VAN works with campaigns, said EveryAction spokesman Max Kamin-Cross said. 

NGP VAN bills itself as the “leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations.” It has provided campaign services to several state and national Democratic candidates, including Whitmer's 2018 gubernatorial campaign, according to state records.

EveryAction’s selection immediately raised alarm among Republicans, who questioned the selection process and claimed the partnership would allow Democratic candidates access to the medical information of individuals across the state. 

“In addition to the fact that a partisan company should not be handling a public health crisis, the Michigan Republican Party is extremely concerned with how this data will be used,” said Laura Cox, chairwoman for the Michigan Republican Party. “The fact that there is now the possibility that it will be utilized for partisan ends is deeply troubling.”

GOP state Rep. Shane Hernandez of Port Huron sent a letter Tuesday to Whitmer questioning the use of the company. After the Whitmer administration changed course, he said the governor "must answer the question of how this could happen in the first place" and let lawmakers see the contract.

“I can’t believe this is the only instance where this administration has made questionable decisions about awarding contracts that may be political in nature during this time of unprecedented executive power,” said Hernandez, chairman of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee. “The people of Michigan, as well as their elected representatives, have so far been left in the dark about how our governor is making these decisions and that must come to an end."

The state did not respond Tuesday to questions from The News about the contract, but on Tuesday evening provided the contract itself.

The state denied the contract with Every Action VAN would be exploited in an interview with the Michigan Information & Research Service.  

The state has "a strict data use agreement that only allows the data collected to be used for this contact tracing project,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin told MIRS. 

“…we feel this is a nonpartisan choices also used by the Michigan Non-Profit Association,” she said, noting the state’s “overwhelming consideration” was using a ready software product capable of handling the contact tracing project. 

Sutfin told MIRS the state wasn't required to have a competitive bid to secure the contract during a state of emergency. 

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Monday the state has trained more than 2,200 volunteers to help with contact tracing. Over the last couple of weeks, 130 Department of Health and Human Services staffers contacted 12,000 coronavirus-positive residents. 

“Contact tracing is an essential public health tool and will help determine and limit the spread of COVID-19 in our state,” Khaldun said in a statement. “This effort is also giving Michiganders an important way to contribute to crisis response and we appreciate their willingness to step up for their communities, pitching in selflessly for work that will help us all.”

According to its website, EveryAction has offered organizing and fundraising tools to nonprofits such as Rock the Vote, Autism Society, Greenpeace, United Nations Foundation and Planned Parenthood.

“As a software company our CRM tools are used by a large number of nonprofits, governments, and corporations to manage their contacts with people,” Kamin-Cross said Tuesday. “Each client owns their own data; we are not a data company. We are proud to be helping reduce the number of coronavirus deaths.”