Health officials hope new coronavirus contact tracing apps will attract more users


A new wave of mobile apps that help track coronavirus exposure are arriving in US states ahead of the holidays as public health officials bet the recently introduced features of Apple Inc. and Google of Alphabet Inc . will significantly boost adoption and impact.

Colorado, Maryland and the District of Columbia launched exposure notification apps with the new technology last month, with more than 2.3 million combined users, according to their public health departments. California, Washington and other states plan to follow next month, officials said.

In addition to human contact tracers, smartphone apps use Bluetooth signals to track close contacts and anonymously alert users when a recent contact is positive. They emerged as promising tools early in the pandemic, but technical shortcomings, privacy concerns, and dismissive attitudes in the United States towards security measures erode their benefits.

The tide may turn as cold weather and lockdown fatigue threaten a global wave of cases.

In September, Apple and Google, the major makers of smartphone software, launched a system called Exposure Notifications Express that allows public health authorities to launch apps without writing any code, paving the way for wider and better deployments. applications.

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“This is one of the many tools in the toolkit, and we have to use them all,” said Sarah Tuneberg, Colorado’s senior advisor for coronavirus containment.

The University of California campuses are testing a statewide prospective system based on the new Express technology, out of San Diego, where it has been used to notify contacts in more than 20 positive cases. Over 18,000 UC San Diego employees and students, more than 50% of the campus population, use the system.


Many state governments in the United States and elsewhere spent millions of dollars and countless hours of development work to launch applications before Express came along.

Apps in Germany and England have each seen around 20 million downloads since the summer launch. However, it remained below the critical mass according to the experts. Both countries have seen a major resurgence of virus cases over the past month.

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In Singapore, where the virus is mostly contained, around half of the population now use the TraceTogether app, which is gradually becoming mandatory for activities such as school and travel.

The United States is lagging behind, with around 6 million people trying exposure notification apps since the first launched in August, according to data from the 18 states and two territories that made the apps available. (For a detailed breakdown, see 🙂

By Christmas, nearly 50% of the U.S. population will have access to an exposure notification app, doubling coverage from early October, according to the Reuters study.

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

“We really wanted to go out before, but the technology wasn’t there yet,” she said.

Colorado has come up with an efficient way to trigger notifications. To avoid false alerts, users enter a state-provided code to verify a positive test. It took days for late investigators to submit the codes, which contributed to poor follow-up in many states, with less than half of positive users entering their code.

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For example, Colorado began sending codes automatically last week using phone numbers from test records. Latency is now several hours, no days, and tracking is provided among users. The downside is that people who don’t use the app receive status text messages that they should ignore.

Other states are reviewing Colorado’s approach.

“Time is running out,” said Dr Katherine Feldman, Maryland contact tracing manager. “You want to identify contacts and get them to isolate themselves as quickly as possible.”

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin. Editing by Jonathan Weber and David Gregorio)

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