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Three states plan to use Apple-Google contact tracing system

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Three states plan to develop contact tracing apps using a system designed by Apple and Google. The two tech rivals rolled out their exposure notification API yesterday, which would give users an alert if they recently came into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

The system uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth antenna to track when two people are less than six feet away from each other and saves that proximity data as an anonymous key. If someone tests positive for Covid-19, they would upload their positive test result into a health app, which would then alert everyone they had recently encountered.

But Apple and Google won’t be the ones developing these apps. At least, for the first phase of the project, they’re relying on public health organizations to develop apps that can plug into the system and give people further instructions on what to do if they might have been exposed to the virus.

Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina were the first states to announce plans to use this system.

Alabama plans to build a contact tracing app in conjunction with the University of Alabama at Birmingham. South Carolina said it would base its SC Safer Together app on the system.  As for North Dakota, it plans to update its existing CARE19 app so it can work with Apple and Google’s system.

A previous iteration of the CARE19 app pulled location data for contact tracing. But it garnered poor reviews from users who downloaded it, with many saying the app’s location tracking was spotty.

North Dakota will have to make a new version of the app, as Apple and Google are barring app developers who use their API from pulling location information.

While some of these restrictions have frustrated public health officials, who say location information would be useful in contact tracing, Apple and Google see it as important to gaining users’ trust.

“Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app,” the companies stated in a press release. “User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”

At the end of the day, much of the work will still fall to good old-fashioned contact tracing. Not everyone has a smartphone, and those that do still might not opt into the system. It’s also not yet clear how many other states will build apps based on Apple and Google’s framework.

There are also some pieces of information that you can get from interviews that would be harder to put in an app. For example, was one of the contacts a healthcare worker? Do they have enough groceries to self-quarantine for two weeks?

“A lot of this stuff isn’t from drop-down menus. You have to interview people to understand what’s going on and what their risk profile is,” George Rutherford, an epidemiologist with the University of California San Francisco, said in a previous interview.

Photo credit: diego_cervo, Getty Images

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