Alabama is one of a handful of states partnering with tech giants Apple and Google to track and notify people who may have been exposed to COVID-19, but little is known about how much those efforts will cost taxpayers and when they’ll be available on Alabamians’ mobile phones.
During a recent update on the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) had “inked a deal” with Apple and Google to use the contact tracing technology both companies rolled out for their respective iOS and Android devices last week.
“We’re [among] the first states that have joined hands with these two global giants in hopes of helping our people learn when and where they may have been exposed to this virus,” Ivey said of the partnership. “Hopefully, this will become an important tool in the tool kit to slow the spread of coronavirus by using what almost every Alabamians has in their pocket — a cell phone.”
With a vaccine or viable treatment for COVID-19 still months away at the earliest, public health officials have repeatedly emphasized the important role widespread testing, contact tracing and exposure notification will play in helping Alabama return to something akin to normal.
In April, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to develop and release a new Bluetooth technology for their wireless devices that could help notify users if they’ve come into contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19. The framework is designed to work in conjunction with mobile apps that are currently being developed specifically for various public health entities like ADPH.
If they download those apps and enable the service, users’ devices will regularly send out beacons with a Bluetooth identifier that appears as a string of random numbers. Those devices will also be able to detect and record identifiers they’ve recently come into contact with, which can be cataloged and checked against a regularly updated list of identifiers belonging to people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Users can then be notified directly if they may have come into contact with those people.
By analyzing the strength of the Bluetooth signals, the technology can also measure how close someone came to a user with COVID-19 and for how long. It will be up to each public health agency to determine what criteria would merit a user being notified that they were potentially exposed.
In an unprecedented partnership, Apple and Google said the technology could be a force multiplier for ongoing contact tracing efforts being conducted by public health officials around the globe — efforts that often involve time-consuming investigations of anyone that may have been exposed to COVID-19.
“There are many responses to COVID-19, including protecting the vulnerable, building new protocols for daily life to reduce transmission, and containing inevitable local outbreaks of coronavirus,” a joint statement from Apple and Google read. “Testing and contact tracing will be critical to this last strategy, especially, in light of the high transmission rate of COVID-19 and exposure notification can be a key addition to the toolbox of public health authorities.”
While the technology is designed to run on third-party apps at the moment, the companies are working to introduce it at the operating system level in the coming months. That would make it automatically available on more than 3 billion devices without requiring users to download anything.
That kind of reach would be impossible to obtain using traditional contact tracing methods, but the concept has also raised concerns among privacy advocates who are worried about what data will be collected, how long it will be collected and who will ultimately have access to it.
For their part, Apple and Google have said the technology was designed to protect customer privacy and only collects or distributes data with the expressed consent of each user. It also utilizes randomly generated Bluetooth keys that change several times a day as an added layer of protection. The companies have also pledged to disable the service once the COVID-19 pandemic is “sufficiently contained.”
“Access to the technology will be granted only to public health authorities, and their apps must meet specific criteria around privacy, security and data control,” the statement reads. “The public health authority app will be able to access a list of Bluetooth identifiers provided by users confirmed as positive for COVID-19 who have consented to sharing them. The system was designed so that Apple and Google do not have access to information related to any specific individual.”
Software updates last week enabled the technology on iOS and Android devices, but as of May 25, there were no available apps making use of the framework. At this point, it’s unclear who is developing the app ADPH plans to use, what it will cost the state and when it might be available to download.
Some reports have indicated ADPH is working on an app in conjunction with a team from The University of Alabama, but the agency was unable to confirm that or whether a formal contract has been signed with anyone. In a statement to Lagniappe, Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers said the agency is still “in ongoing discussions” with Google and Apple and hopes to release more information soon.
Aside from privacy concerns, existing exposure notification apps have seen mixed responses. Some health officials have also said Apple and Google’s plan not to include location data hinders their ability to use apps built on their technology to detect events that may have put multiple people at risk for exposure.
Others have questioned whether they’d be used by enough people to make them effective. Similar apps built on other kinds of tracing technology have not been as broadly adopted as public health officials had hoped. For instance, the state of Utah previously spent nearly $3 million on a contact tracing app, and as of May 20, statistics indicated less than 2 percent of the state’s population had downloaded it.
Dr. Laura Cepeda, medical director at the Mobile County Health Department, echoed a similar sentiment, saying those types of apps could be a game changer, but only if people are willing to use them.
“If no one is using them, obviously it’s not going to do much good, and at this point those are still mostly elective,” Cepeda said. “But it remains to be seen how that unfolds in the future in terms of their reliability. This is all happening in real time, and we’re all watching it happen together.”
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