NEW YORK: More than 8.1 million people in the US have converted their iPhones and Android devices into instruments for pandemic touch monitoring, but while their neighbours, peers and colleagues are not on the same scheme, it has not been of any benefit.
In order to warn phone users whether they spend time with someone who is positive for the coronavirus, Apple and Google co-created exposure warning technology, so they know how to get screened, too.
To retain users’ anonymity, it is designed with strong privacy constraints, but the software giants have left it to the public health authority of each state to determine whether to use it. So far the exposure warning scheme has been made accessible to its citizens by 16 US states, including Guam and Washington DC, and more than 30 nations.
How does it work?
To identify when two phones are in near contact for long enough for anyone to potentially spread the virus, the technology depends on Bluetooth short-range radio signals. For at least 15 minutes a day most states calculate the near touch as within 6 feet.
Those wireless interactions that may occur amongst strangers on a train or in a crowded shop are randomly generated into keys and logged briefly in a way that does not disclose the identification or geographical location of an individual.
If one individual tests positive for the virus and the finding is confirmed by state health officials, those who have previously spent time with the infected person get an immediate warning. That also comes with the state health agency’s recommendations on how to get tested to keep the disease from spreading.
Where and how can you use it?
IPhone users don’t have to download an app in Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C., but may have to change their handset settings to agree to the monitoring. Android users in those areas must download an app that was automatically created by Google for the public health agency of the area.
Public health departments have custom-built dose warning applications in another 13 sites that can be found in the Apple and Google Play app stores. Alabama, Delaware, Guam, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming are just some of those areas.
There is a small pilot scheme in four other states: Arizona, California, Hawaii and Oregon.
What if you cross borders?
In most cases, if you travel between the places where the technology is activated, it doesn’t matter that you’re using the app from your home state. If you’ve been exposed somewhere, it always monitors it.
That suggests, for instance, that if they spend the day in Manhattan, New Jersey residents who download their state app will still pick up signals from New York app users.
That’s because a popular national server with Bluetooth keys has been set up by a coalition of collaborating public health agencies. In the European Union, a parallel system exists across certain national boundaries.
Are there glitches?
Yes, some are as related to human nature as they are to technology. Users have protested about a case confirmation process that can differ by jurisdiction, but usually depends on a communication between the infected user and often-overwhelmed teams of human contact-tracing.
As a defence against prank warnings, once the public health department has confirmed that an app customer has COVID-19, no updates are activated. In certain states, a health nurse must first receive a code from someone who tests positive and needs to warn other people about it. Any users never get or get the code, but never type the code into the app. It’s not necessarily the first thing on everybody’s mind in the middle of a raging pandemic.
How much participation makes it effective?
Guam officials said they were encouraged to use the software to make it successful for 60 percent of the adult population of the island territory, although it is uncommon for all the best-known consumer applications to achieve that kind of coverage.
Add the politicisation of the U.S. response to COVID-19, the stigma of illness, concerns of privacy and uncertainty over each state having a separate solution, and it’s not shocking that there has been a lack of excitement.
Earlier this year the 60% goal came from an Oxford University survey, but Oxford researchers later stressed that even much lower participation rates would save lives.
In September, they predicted that a well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce in the state of Washington, combined with 15 percent uptake of an exposure warning system, could decrease infections by 15 percent and deaths by 11 percent. On Nov. 29, Washington’s system went live and had nearly 9 percent implementation within a day.
In states where iPhone users do not have to download an app and get a pop-up prompt asking them to agree to the monitoring, participation was maximum.