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Apple and Google Team Up to Fight COVID-19 With Technology

The test came back positive. Hannah’s first thought was, “I will get through this.’ Closely followed by, “My parents are going to KILL me.”  The dry cough started a few days ago, accompanied by a fever and body aches. Hannah knew she probably should have kept her mask on when she went out with her friends last Saturday, but they were having so much fun, it had been ages since she was able to relax. 

The day after the fateful night out, Sunday was spent at her grandma’s house for a family birthday party. Her family was very close-knit- they expressed their love by hugging and kissing frequently. Her stomach in knots, she picked up the phone to call her parents. She wished there was an easier way to keep track of who she had been in contact with...... 

Contact Tracing and COVID-19

Contact tracing is an integral part of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective contact tracing requires tracking down any person the infected individual has been in contact with to warn them of potential exposure and the need to quarantine. Ideally, no personal identification is used. Instead, it is just a notification to recommend getting tested, instructions on quarantine, limiting interactions with others, and monitoring symptoms.

An App for That

On April 10, 2020, Google and Apple announced a collaboration to provide Bluetooth technology to enable governments and health agencies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 through contact tracing. 

The goal of their development is to lessen some of the challenges associated with the contact tracing process. The plan is to roll out the solution in a two-step process. The app works using either the iOS or Android operating systems. 

It is important to understand that Apple and Google are not creating the app itself. They created something called an “application programming interface” (API), enabling the app to work better. The API is simply the infrastructure that public health officials will build the tools on.

The apps must be created by government officials and are limited to one developer per country or state.

After downloading the free app, individuals will be notified if they have been in close contact with an infected person. It only works if the infected person has entered the information on their app. The app does not give details on where the contact was made or doesn’t provide this information to public health officials.

How Does Technology Help Contact Tracing?

Mobile devices are ubiquitous. They are a much faster and more efficient way to trace a person’s interactions than conventional methods of contact tracing. It is challenging to remember EVERYONE you have been in contact with over the past two weeks. Potential exposure situations such as the grocery store, sitting on a park bench, and going to a restaurant have many interaction opportunities. Most people have phones and usually carry their phones everywhere they go- so it would make sense to use the devices, instead of relying on an individual, to do the contact tracing. But it isn’t always that easy.

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What about Privacy and Security?

Many health care officials are concerned about the privacy and preservation of individuals’ health information. Apple and Google address this (and other situations) in a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Exposure Notifications guide.

The identity of app users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently. Exposure notification is only done on the phone itself with permission from the user. Also, people who test positive are not identified by the system to other users, or by Apple or Google. Users can turn off this feature by “uninstalling the contact tracing application or turning off exposure notification in Settings.”

The Response So Far

U.S. citizens aren’t entirely on board yet. The response has been less than enthusiastic. A couple of states-North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah launched a version (without Apple and Google), and the response was less than desirable.  

This type of technology will only be effective if people use it. It may seem a good idea in theory, but the overall opinion is to err on the side of caution.

Bottom line: It is going to take more than an app to fight COVID-19. Keep practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and wearing masks because we know these practices work.

Where Can I Get More Information?

  • This is an excellent summary of what is being done worldwide using digital technology to fight COVID-19
  • Here you can read about other COVID-19 related digital technology

References:

Published July 17th, 2020 by Dr. Betsy Hoida, PharmD, BCPS
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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