New York’s COVID-19 tracing app slow to gain acceptance

Two months after its launch, fewer than 1,000 users have received warnings from a state app that anonymously alerts New Yorkers to potential COVID-19 exposure, with many of its users failing to log their positive test results.

The app, Covid Alert NY, uses Bluetooth technology developed by Apple and Google to detect when people have been within 6 feet of one another for longer than 10 minutes—assuming they both have downloaded the software. If a user of the app tests positive, people they have had contact with for that duration are notified, without recording any personally identifying detail on the exposure.

The process requires users to manually enter their test results, however, and a majority have not followed through.

Since the app’s launch on Oct. 1, there have been 2,631 New York residents to test positive for COVID-19 and report to a contact tracer they have the app installed on their phone, according to data provided by the state Department of Health.

The contact tracer provides that person a unique code to enter into the app, signifying their positive test and anonymously alerting app users who had contact with the person.

Only 854 people—about a third of those cases—have put the code in the app, according to state data. Those 854 cases reported to the app have triggered 780 exposure notifications to other users.

The 854 cases represent just 0.5% of the more than 180,000 positive COVID-19 tests the state has recorded since the app’s launch. The app has been downloaded 1.1 million times, which would represent 7% of the adult-age population in New York, though it is unlikely that each download represents an active user.

As cases rise again in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed for people to download the app as a mitigation measure during the current virus surge, with a link to the app placed at the top of all state web pages. A joint study by Oxford University and Google released in the summer found that exposure-notification apps could reduce infections by 15% in a region if the app is downloaded by at least 15% of the population and paired with manual contact tracing.

Public health experts called the notification numbers disappointing for an app they say could help relieve pressure on contact tracers as cases rise.

The 780 total notifications “tells me that the app isn’t being used enough to generate much benefit; each person is coming in contact with very few others who also are using the app,” said Troy Tassier, a Fordham University professor who studies economic epidemiology.

Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health in Harlem, said the state needs to find ways to create demand around the app.

“Compared to the potential job this app could be doing, it is not yet even coming close,” Nash said. “This has the potential to relieve a massive burden on contact tracers. Yes, this is public health, but it is also a marketing problem.”

The challenge for the state is balancing privacy on the app with the need to expand it. Cuomo has stressed that the app is built around privacy and that every step is voluntary.

Cuomo’s office said alerts about potential exposure reach beyond the 780 users who have received them directly, as those people likely have notified their family and friends.

“New York state’s contact tracers have proven to be extremely effective, reaching over 80% of all cases, and the Covid Alert NY app serves to supplement these efforts,” state spokeswoman Laura Montross said.

The state has advertised the app through Facebook, TikTok and other social-media outlets, as well as with advertisements on television and radio. The ads have all come through donated space or time, Montross said. The $700,000 development cost for the app came through a donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies and federal grants.

“I think you will see increased downloads now, with so much attention being paid to spiking COVID rates in general,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Tech:NYC, which is helping promote the app. “People will still want to do things, so you need to practice appropriate safety measures. And downloading the app is one such measure.”

New York’s COVID-19 tracing app slow to gain acceptance” originally appeared in Crain’s New York Business.


Tags: covid-19, pandemic

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