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Utah considering Apple-Google technology for COVID-19 contact tracing

Posted at 7:04 AM, Nov 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 09:04:40-05

SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of the latest COVID-19 case spikes, the state of Utah is exploring the idea of using Google and Apple for contact tracing.

However, Utah has already spent millions in partnership with another app, called Healthy Together that was supposed to provide those very same services.

“I think this can play a good healthy role in helping us attack an enemy which is invisible,” Governor Herbert said back in April when the Healthy Together app was launched. It's a partnership between the state and the company Twenty.

The app provided symptom checking, but that wasn’t the main reason for its big roll out.

“What it's really in our contact tracing process in terms of really being able to identify more readily where a positive case has been,” state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn said.

Utah entered into the $6 million no-bid contract on March 27, and announced the release and public beta testing on April 22.

By July, the state had already decided to lose the GPS “contact tracing” because of low user adoption.

In August, the app switched to Bluetooth tracing instead.

But now, after millions of dollars and several months and numerous times declining partnerships with Apple and Google, the state is exploring the idea of switching.

“It appears that the state has a pretty good opportunity to course-correct at this moment,” said Tom Merrill, founder of Redstone LLC. “It’s not too late.”

“If people are gonna participate in this and change their behavior, they need to have power,” added Redstone healthcare technology expert, Mark Evans.

Merrill and Evans, and their health technology firm Redstone LLC, have authored a white paper looking at how Utah should use technology to contact trace.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Merrill said. “And it's pretty clear now that money could have been spent differently.”

The main reason the Healthy Together app didn’t work as intended was that people didn’t feel safe with the information it was asking for.

"There was too much going on and it spooked reasonable people with privacy concerns,” Merrill said.

“People don’t like that,” Evans said. “They turn it off when they see it and that kind of frustrates the entire effort. If you can’t track people then what’s the point?”

The Apple-Google partnership solution, which is free for the state, deals with personal information differently.

“If I come into contact with you in a ten minute period and then another person in a ten minute period, I am two entirely different unique identifiers to you and to that person,” Evans said. “And that’s the same for everyone that would be on the Google-Apple app. There is no way to detect who’s data is who’s.”

And with the latest phone updates, there's another added benefit.

“It’s not only free, but you don’t even need an app to make that work,” Evans said.

It would only take about a week for the state of Utah to set up the necessary infrastructure.

Ultimately the biggest reason according to these two for the switch is that it gives people privacy and choice over their information.

“I think we need to take advantage of this technology that respects privacy,” Merrill said.

“The state doesn’t know, my friends don’t know, and then that puts the responsibility on me,” Evans said. “I then need to act responsibly. Let me make my own decisions, well, this does exactly that.”

Officially the state is just considering the Apple-Google contact tracing solution officially called Exposure Notification Express, so exactly if or when it makes the switch remains to be seen.