COVID-19 exposure apps have been adopted by few people despite their promise

The smartphone apps could bolster one of the most difficult tasks in pandemic control: tracing the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus.

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Evan Metaxatos, a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina, downloaded his state’s COVID-tracking app and got his parents and wife to do that, too, but few others have. “It won’t work great until everyone’s using it, but it’s better than nothing,” Metaxatos says.

Evan Metaxatos, a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina, downloaded his state’s COVID-tracking app and got his parents and wife to do that, too, but few others have. “It won’t work great until everyone’s using it, but it’s better than nothing,” Metaxatos says.

Chris Carlson / AP

RALEIGH, N.C. — Six months ago, Apple and Google introduced a new smartphone tool designed to notify people who might have been exposed to the coronavirus, without disclosing any personal information. But Americans haven’t been all that interested.

Fewer than half of U.S. states and territories — a total of 18 — have made such technology widely available. And the vast majority of Americans in such locations haven’t activated the tool, according to a data analysis by The Associated Press.

Data from 16 states, Guam and the District of Columbia shows that 8.1 million people had utilized the technology as of late November — about one in 14 of the 110 million residents in those regions.

Such apps could bolster one of the most difficult tasks in pandemic control: tracing the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus so they can be tested and, if necessary, isolated.

In practice, though, widespread COVID-19 misinformation, the complexity of the technology, overwhelmed health workers needed to quickly confirm a diagnosis and a general lack of awareness have presented obstacles.

Evan Metaxatos, a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina, was thrilled to learn in November about his state’s tracking app. He downloaded it and got his parents and wife to follow suit.

But they’re still outliers in the state, which launched the app in September. Of roughly 10.5 million state residents, only 482,003 had installed it by the end of November.

“It won’t work great until everyone’s using it, but it’s better than nothing,” Metaxatos said.

Apple and Google co-created the primary technology behind such apps, which use Bluetooth wireless signals to anonymously detect when two phones have spent time in close proximity. If an app user tests positive for the virus, that person’s phone can trigger a notification to other people they’ve spent time near — without revealing names, locations or any other identifying information.

COVID-19 notification apps for North Carolina, called SlowCOVIDNC, and Virginia, called COVIDWISE, seen on a smart phone.

COVID-19 notification apps for North Carolina, called SlowCOVIDNC, and Virginia, called COVIDWISE, seen on a smart phone.

Gerry Broome / AP

In states such as Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington and Washington, D.C., iPhone users don’t even have to download an app. Apple prompts users via popups to activate the notification system by adjusting their phone settings.

In these states, adoption rates are notably higher. But even in the most successful state, Connecticut, only about a fifth of all residents have opted into this tracking.

Virginia’s COVIDWISE app was launched on Aug. 5 and was the first to go live. Since then, fewer than one in ten residents have downloaded it, though the state estimates that nearly 20% of Virginians between 18 and 65 with a smartphone have done so. Delaware’s app downloads account for about 7% of the state’s population. Other states have much lower rates.

New York launched its app on Oct. 1. It recently surpassed 1 million downloads — about 5% of the population. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have seen a 4% download rate.

Adoption is even lower in Wyoming, North Dakota, Michigan, Nevada and Alabama, with users representing only 1% to 3% of their state populations. The free apps can be found in Apple’s app store and the Google Play store.

Irish app developer NearForm says more than one-quarter of Ireland’s population uses its COVID-19 app. It’s been harder to get such traction in the four U.S. states where it’s built similar apps: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Germany and Britain have penetration rates similar to Ireland’s. In France, less than 4% of the population is using the official COVID app, which shuns the Apple-Google approach for a more intrusive data-collection system.

Security experts praise the Apple-Google system for protecting users’ anonymity. But American users say partisanship, privacy concerns and a stigma surrounding COVID-19 have kept participation low. A lack of government efforts to boost awareness hasn’t helped.

Neither have technological and bureaucratic issues.

Lee McFarland, a loan officer from Grand Forks, North Dakota, was eager to download his state’s Care19 Alert app but said he couldn’t push a “Notify Others” button after getting the virus in late October.

“If you test positive, a public health official will call and verify your code,” said a message on McFarland’s app. “This ensures that only verified positive COVID-19 people can send notifications.”

McFarland said he forgot to tell the health worker he had the app installed on his phone. He was unsuccessful in following up with the worker to get the needed code and has since deleted the app.

Even when that process works, many North Dakotans don’t push the button to notify others. Tim Brookins, chief executive officer of app developer ProudCrowd, said 91 of North Dakota’s 14,000 active users had their “Notify Others” button enabled after the state confirmed them as positive. Of the 91 users, only 29 pushed the button, which prompted 50 notifications.

Still, many users say they’ll keep the app.

“Everybody that does something is helping,” said David Waechter, a general contractor from Lenoir, North Carolina.

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