contact tracing app (ProStockStudio/Shutterstock.com)

States try automating virus contact tracing

As states ramp up efforts to open their economies, 16 public and private sector health experts have written to congressional leadership urging funding for a robust contract tracing system. In an April 27 letter, they estimated that until an effective vaccine is available, the country must expand the contract tracing workforce by 180,000 trained staff at cost $12 billion.

To speed up the contact tracing, cut down on the number of trained workers and reduce overall costs, some states are investigating contact tracing apps. These smartphone-based apps use the devices’ GPS and Bluetooth functions to collect and share data about where users have been and with whom they’ve come in contact.

Utah launched a public beta version of the Healthy Together contact tracing app that aims to give state health workers a faster and more accurate picture of where and how the virus is spreading. 

The app prompts users every day to check their symptoms against an assessment developed in partnership with the Utah Department of Health. When the app identifies someone who should be tested, it helps connect them with testing sites in their area and makes test results available through the app. 

Those who test positive for the virus – whether they use the app or not -- are contacted by a public health worker who helps them to identify close contacts who may have been exposed to the virus. Because the app uses Bluetooth and location tracing services to securely record a potential exposure event, app users can choose to share the app’s data with public health workers to detail where they may have spread the virus. All personal information in the app is anonymous to everyone except public health officials who use it solely to combat COVID-19, state officials said.

The app is free, and its use is strictly voluntary. Users own their location data and can delete it at any time. Every 30 days, location and Bluetooth data is automatically deleted, and symptom data is automatically de-identified after 30 days. Healthy Together complies with state requirements for data security, encrypting data in transit and at rest. 

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum and the state Department of Health (NDDoH) launched a free mobile app, Care19, to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Once the app is downloaded, users are assigned a random ID number, and the app anonymously caches users’ locations throughout the day. It also prompts users to categorize their movement into different groups such as work or grocery. The app only stores locations users have visited for more than 10 minutes, and the ID number of each individual contains no personal information besides location data.

Users who test positive for COVID-19 can provide their information from the app to the NDDoH to help in contact tracing and forecasting the pandemic’s progression.

Care19 will incorporate the Bluetooth proximity-tracking technology developed by Apple and Google, which will allow users who are COVID-19 positive to consent to allow others they were in contact with to be anonymously notified.

Uptake of the voluntary contact tracing apps has been limited. In North Dakota, about 3% of the population download the app, according to an April 29 report in The New York Times. Other countries have had more success. Singapore’s app has been downloaded by 20% of residents, and Norway’s app has nearly 30% downloading it.

Contact tracing is just one part of the larger data management ecosystem required to investigate, test and transmit real-time lab and case information about virus exposure across multiple data streams to inform patients, health care workers and public health officials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To help cities and states working on developing or purchasing contact tracing apps, CDC has issued preliminary criteria health departments can use in their evaluations. The charts list minimum and preferred capabilities and attributes of digital contact tracing tools used for case management and proximity tracking.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.

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