For States’ COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps, Privacy Tops Utility

“Despite the fact that Google and Apple created an entirely privacy protective model, but one that doesn't work that well, they still got hammered on the privacy concerns,” he said. “Politically it was too dangerous.”

Still, even a year into the pandemic, with vaccine supply ramping up, some experts say it’s not too late to launch these apps — and that they may be even more important now.

New Mexico and Oregon plan to release apps soon. Arizona’s app, which was developed through a pilot project at the University of Arizona, is available to the public but has not yet been marketed.

Joanna Masel, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, said the value of exposure notifications only increases as coronavirus case numbers fall.

“If there are 10 cases, and you quarantine one, you reduce the risk by a tenth. Each little bit of information you get is worth more,” she said.

Separately, Masel is a consultant for WeHealth, a research-based technology platform for public health that helped develop Arizona’s app. In that role, Masel hopes to work with states to develop systems that would track locations — still as an opt-in function but designed to collect more data.

Masel thinks the technology would be useful for ongoing strains of the coronavirus or even for a future pandemic.

“It could be good for vaccine boosters with strains. It integrates everything, whether you’ve been infected before, whether you’ve been vaccinated,” she said. “It’s sort of a guide for people to navigate the pandemic.”

Some state health officials have a similar future in mind. As more people prepare to travel, the exposure notifications will continue to work across state lines. The Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state and local health labs, hosts a national server to support all states with apps.

“As people get vaccinated, as we hope to return to more quote-unquote normal life, I think the technology can play a bigger and bigger role,” said Katherine Feldman, director of the contact tracing unit at the Maryland Department of Health. She continues to urge people to opt in to the state’s exposure notifications system.

In a preprint of a University of Oxford study from September, researchers determined that all levels of exposure notification had the potential to “meaningfully reduce the number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.” (Google researchers co-authored the study.)

The Google and Apple system is in use in 36 other countries. A February report from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service estimated alerts from the app helped to prevent approximately 600,000 coronavirus cases since September. A peer-reviewed January study of the app’s use in Spain last summer determined the app identified nearly twice as many COVID-19 exposures as human contact tracers.

But Ray, the Cleveland law professor, thinks the urgency for making apps work in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic has been lost. “Who cares right now? Vaccines are on the way.”

In the future, though, he thinks people would be willing to adopt technology to help their health. Many already do, through fitness applications and wearable devices.

“It's got to be linked to people's specific individual interest in their own health,” Ray said. “I think the trick will be that we need tech that will do all the potentially powerful things that contact tracing apps could have done, and just not call it that.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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