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posted: 9/5/2020 6:10 AM

Change allows states to use Apple, Google coronavirus software without creating apps

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  • Covidwise, like other exposure notification apps produced by state health authorities, uses Bluetooth capabilities Google and Apple built into their smartphone operating systems.

    Covidwise, like other exposure notification apps produced by state health authorities, uses Bluetooth capabilities Google and Apple built into their smartphone operating systems.
    Washington Post photo by Jonathan Baran

 
 

Apple and Google said Tuesday they're expanding coronavirus warning software so that state health agencies can participate without having to create customized apps.

The new option, called "exposure notifications express," removes one of the key barriers to adoption that led to a slow start to the software, which can warn people when they come in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. So far, only six U.S. states have created apps that work with Apple and Google's software.

The software, which is built into the operating systems on Google's Android phones and Apple's iPhones, uses Bluetooth to tell whether people have spent significant time near one another. If a participant in the exposure notification program tests positive for the coronavirus, that person's close contacts may get a notification.

"I would say this is an improvement," said Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Kahn, who has been studying the use of technology to fight the virus, said states have been hamstrung by indecision around which technology vendors they should use to build their apps, among other issues. He said this may help speed up adoption, but shouldn't be considered a magic bullet. "It's still not probably serving all the interests that public health would want, but it's better than nothing," he said.

First launched in May, coronavirus tracking software got off to a rocky start. Some public health agencies in the United States and around the world had wanted to build mobile apps that would help them track the spread of the virus, a process known as "contact tracing." But the contact-tracing apps that initially launched did not function properly because of limitations the two tech giants place on mobile apps distributed through their stores. Citing privacy concerns and potential battery drain, Apple and Google declined to give public health agencies special access for the purpose of contact tracing.

Instead, Apple and Google launched their own software that is built into the operating system. Public health agencies were asked to design their own apps that utilize the software. But the Apple and Google software provides little information to public health agencies.

Tuesday's announcement, the companies said in a joint conference call, may help speed up adoption by allowing states to participate without creating customized apps.

Users who live in states that participate in the software may get a pop-up notification, prompting them to opt into the program. By following simple steps, they can share their Bluetooth data and receive notifications if they come in contact with another participant who has tested positive. Previously, users would have had to download a stand-alone app built by their state. Now, the process is more like changing the settings on the phone.

If a person tests positive for the virus, participating public heath agencies provide the person with a unique number. When entered into the system, other participants who've come into contact with that person may be notified.

Public health experts and researchers have said that to make a difference in the spread of the virus, adoption rates of the exposure notification tool would have to be high, with as much as 60% of the population participating.

On the conference call Tuesday, officials from the companies questioned those claims. They said much lower adoption rates would still reduce the spread of the virus and touted the software's success in Ireland. In one example, an Irish man was diagnosed with the coronavirus after receiving an exposure notification from Apple and Google, the companies said.

In a test, 35 Washington Post staffers downloaded Virginia's Covidwise app, which launched last month. None of them received an exposure notification warning in a week of using it.

Public health officials would like to do more than just notify people of possible exposures. In the long-running practice of contact tracing, officials working for public health agencies have tried to trace the spread of infectious diseases by interviewing patients and asking them who they've come in contact with. Sometimes, they even review surveillance footage to determine where the diseases might have spread.

But the coronavirus has spread too quickly for public health agencies to keep up with traditional methods. Countries such as South Korea and Israel have attempted to use technology to tackle the effort, using cellphone records and GPS data to try to track the virus. Those methods have also drawn criticism from privacy advocates.

With its exposure notification software, Apple and Google steered public health agencies to a more hands-off approach to technology with fewer privacy concerns. Without the ability to collect personal information, more people would use the software, the companies said.

At least in the United States, many people haven't had the option of participating, as states have been slow to create apps. Now, with "exposure notifications express," states will have less work to participate.

Officials from Apple and Google were asked on the call Tuesday why they didn't create the "express" option from the beginning. Their answer: They like when version two of their software is considered better than version one.