New contact tracing apps stir hope for virus fighters in US states

COVID-19 coverage

A fresh wave of mobile apps which help monitor exposure into the coronavirus is coming to US states ahead of the vacations as public health officials bet that recently introduced features from Apple and Google will significantly boost impact and adoption.

Colorado, Maryland and District of Columbia launched exposure-notification apps with all the newest technology in the previous month, garnering over 2.3 million consumers combined, based on their public health departments. California, Washington and other states expect to follow in the next month, officials said.

Complementing human contact-tracers, the smartphone apps use Bluetooth signs to monitor when individuals are in close contact and anonymously alert users when a recent contact tests positive. They emerged as promising tools early in pandemic, but technical flaws, privacy concerns and dismissive attitudes in the US toward safety measures exceeding their own benefits.

The wave may turning as chilly weather and lockdown fatigue endanger a worldwide surge in cases.

In September, Apple and Google, dominant makers of smartphone software, established a system called Exposure Notifications Express that allows public health authorities to establish apps without writing code, setting the stage for wider rollouts and improved apps.

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“This is one of the many tools in the toolbox, and we need to use them all,” explained Sarah Tuneberg, Colorado’s senior adviser for COVID-19 containment.

University of California campuses have been piloting a potential state-wide system based on the new Express technology, beginning at San Diego, where it has been used to inform contacts in more than 20 positive circumstances. More than 18,000 UC San Diego employees and pupils, over 50% of the population, are using the machine.

Many governments in US nations and elsewhere spent millions of dollars and countless staff hours on development to establish apps before Express arrived.

Apps in Germany and England every have seen about 20 million downloads since summer launches. Yet that stayed short of the critical mass experts say is needed. Both nations have seen a significant resurgence in virus cases over the past month.

In Singapore, in which the virus is chiefly included, about half of the population now uses the TraceTogether app, which will be slowly being made mandatory for activities including school and traveling.

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The United States has dropped, with about 6 million people having tried exposure notification apps because the first one surfaced in August, according to data from the 18 states and two continents which made apps available.

By Christmas, almost 50% of the US population will have access to a vulnerability notification app, doubling coverage from early October, according to a review by our content partners at Thomson Reuters.

Colorado’s roll-out has become a textbook case for proponents of the technology. Google and Apple also recently started notifying their users about new app launches, and the nudges helped Colorado quickly get about a fifth of its residents to adopt the technology, Tuneberg said.

“We really wanted to get out there before, but the tech wasn’t baked yet,” she said.

Colorado devised an efficient way to trigger notifications. It was taking days for backlogged case investigators to send the codes, which has contributed to poor follow-through in many states, with fewer than half of positive users entering their code.

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So Colorado last week started automatically texting codes using phone numbers from testing records. Lag time is now hours, not days, and follow-through is up among users. The downside is that people who do not use the app get text messages from the state that they need to ignore.

Other states are reviewing Colorado’s approach.

“Time is of the essence,” said Dr Katherine Feldman, Maryland’s head of contact tracing.

“You want to identify connections and make them isolate as swiftly as possible.”

The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed this news article. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Paresh Dave. Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin. Editing by Jonathan Weber and David Gregorio.

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