More States Are Offering Contact-Tracing Apps—Now if Only They Could Get People to Use Them

The state of Virginia launched the first U.S. app using Apple-Google coronavirus notification technology back in August, but months later only roughly one in 10 residents have downloaded it.

The state of Virginia launched the first U.S. app using Apple-Google coronavirus notification technology back in August, but months later only roughly one in 10 residents have downloaded it.
Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)

Google and Apple rolled out their covid-19 contact-tracing APIs months ago for state officials to use in developing their own covid-19-tracking apps, but adoption has proceeded at a snail’s pace. Just 15 states and Washington, D.C. are currently employing the tech giants’ “exposure notification” tech while a handful of other states such as California and Oregon have apps in development. But creating an app is just the first hurdle, as many of these states are quickly learning; getting residents to actually use it is an entirely different beast.

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Lots of people are still skeptical of the technology, in part because of the Trump administration’s politicization of basic science and in part because Big Tech, Google and Apple included, doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to privacy. The Wall Street Journal reports that roughly one-third of D.C. residents have activated the smartphone function, which is a promising start. In other states, the adoption rate is considerably less. New York’s contact-tracing app has been downloaded roughly 700,000 times and Pennsylvania’s app has seen 500,000 downloads, according to data from the research firm Sensor Tower per the outlet. That’s a tiny fraction of each state’s total population of 19.4 million and 12.8 million, respectively.

My home state of Virginia was the first to roll out a contact-tracing app back in August, and since then around 800,000 residents have downloaded it, health officials told the Journal. With the state’s population sitting at about 8.5 million, that means roughly one in 10 Virginians downloaded the app.

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Sad as it is to say, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Whenever I mention the app, known as Covidwise, to people, by and large the most common response I get is a blank stare. Usually followed by something like, “Wait, Virginia has one of those?” Mind you, that’s even after the app made headlines in September when Governor Ralph Northam became infected with the virus. Covidwise got a grim real-world test run then, as the app alerted three of his aides that had been traveling with him at the time and warned them of potential exposure.

To recap how Google and Apple’s contact-tracing tech works, the app exchanges random Bluetooth identifiers whenever a person’s phone comes within Bluetooth range of another device that’s installed the app. These identifiers change frequently, and because it relies on Bluetooth the app never accesses or records your location data. Users register their diagnosis in the app if they test positive for the virus. If you have notifications enabled, your phone can then receive alerts warning you when you have may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for covid-19 and what steps you can take.

It’s unclear exactly how much of a population would need to use contact-tracing apps to stop the spread of the virus. Back in April, Oxford researchers found that an adoption rate of around 60% of the population could be enough to “stop the epidemic,” but lower rates could still help keep the virus from spreading provided that testing facilities are widely available. However, even that 60 percent figure is just a theory at this point given that no country in the world has come close to that.

Covidwise has sent out 116 notifications per day on average since August, the Virginia Department of Health told the Journal. State officials have been reporting roughly 1,000 new cases every day since then (though that number has doubled in recent weeks), which should give you an idea of just how much of a drop in the bucket that is. Though Virginia is apparently still doing better than some states: In Nevada, where roughly 70,000 people or 3% of the population have downloaded the state’s contact-tracing app, the app registered zero new exposures in September, according to Time magazine. That same month, the state reported 10,000 new covid-19 cases.

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The politicization of the virus by top federal officials has severely impacted Virginia’s efforts to promote the app, Jeff Stover, executive advisor to the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health, told the Journal.

“That doesn’t help convince Virginians to download and run an exposure notification app that is run by the government,” he said.

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Still, Stover added that officials are working to integrate functionality between contact-tracing apps for D.C. and Maryland, which would make sense given the high volume of interstate traffic in the region. Whether these efforts do anything to convince other states to get on board remains to be seen. But maybe with a Biden presidency right around the corner, we’ll finally start seeing some common-sense health measures enacted at the federal level.

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