A New Age of Contact Tracing

We’ve talked about them before but they are making a comeback – contact tracing apps technology is again attempting to help control the coronavirus. This time the technology will not collect personal health information or track the user’s location. Apple and Google have been working on these tools for state and local public health authorities. They released this technology a few weeks ago hoping they can help slow the spread of COVID-19 by notifying users if they come in contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

Before, state health departments were responsible for creating contact tracing apps that worked with the tech company’s contact-tracing infrastructure. Now Apple and Google are releasing contact-tracing tools that were designed according to the specs provided by state health agencies.     

Traditional Contact Tracing

The goal is to augment traditional manual contact tracing which can be long and laborious.  During the manual tracing, infected individuals are interviewed by healthcare workers about who they have recently been in contact with. The individuals they came in contact with are considered at-risk and are notified to self-isolate and get tested to prevent further infecting others.

 “Public health agencies are carrying an extraordinary load in managing the novel coronavirus response,” said Scott J. Becker, CEO of Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). “Offering a turn-key solution such as EN [Exposure Notificiation] Express can greatly reduce their burden and eliminate many of the up-front requirements of building an app and setting up servers.”

Apple and Google came out in a statement saying these changes are a “next step in our work with public health authorities.” They said these adjustments would help “public health authorities to supplement their existing contact tracing operations with technology without compromising on the project’s core tenets of user privacy and security.” 

The Association of Public Health Laboratories announced that the data collected from these virus alert apps will be hosted on a national server. For example, if an app user travels from Virginia to Alabama they can still detect nearby phones while traveling.   

Public Adoption of Contact Tracing Apps 

A few states including Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, DC have committed to deploying the new system. The governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan has said that the new system put out by Apple and Google will help the state’s current public health efforts.  “Exposure Notifications Express will help to save lives, greatly enhance our contact tracing operation, and advance our statewide COVID-19 recovery, “ said Hogan.  “We appreciate our collaboration with Apple and Google, and look forward to launching this state of the art technology in Maryland.”

Although great effort is going into securing privacy, there still is concern that Americans will be reluctant to use the apps. One study from Oxford showed that 60% adoption of the apps would be enough to control the pandemic. This has raised concern that a low adoption rate of the app may prove them ineffective. However, Professor Christopher Fraser, one of the researchers behind that study at Oxford, has said that as little as 15% of the population using digital contact-tracing apps could reduce COVID-19 infections by 15% and deaths by 11%.