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Contact Tracing Apps See Mixed Success In The Mountain West

In April, Google and Apple launched software that state health authorities can use to build COVID-19 contact tracing apps. But fewer than half of U.S. states have taken advantage, and most people living in those states aren't putting the apps to use.

In the Mountain West, Colorado's Exposure Notifications app has had the most success, with about 20% of the state's population having downloaded it. But fewer than 3% of Wyoming and Nevada residents have downloaded their states' smartphone apps.

Jessica Vitak, a professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, says concerns about data privacy are contributing to the slow uptake in those and other states across the country.

"People, when they don't understand technology, tend to be afraid of it. I think that's something we're seeing with these apps," Vitak said.

The Google Apple Exposure Notification System uses bluetooth, rather than more sensitive GPS location data, to keep track of which app users have been in close contact with one another. It alerts users to possible exposures without storing or sharing any data about their identity or location.

Vitak considers herself a "privacy zealot," and was initially skeptical of contact tracing smartphone apps, but said the solutions developed by Google and Apple are "very satisfactory."

"The way that [the apps] encrypt the data, how long they store the data, all of these things check boxes for me," Vitak said. "This is a relatively safe solution. The risks are minimized, and the benefits of having increased contact tracing outweigh those risks."

Sarah Tuneberg, who heads up Colorado's COVID-19 Innovation Response team, said those "privacy forward" features have been key to the app's relative success in the state, as well as an investment in marketing and outreach.

"That included a lot of ad-buys, and ensuring that everybody, when they got the push notification that [the app] was available, knew what it was and what to do with it," Tuneberg said.

In Wyoming and Nevada, potential users have to seek out the app on their own.

So far, Tuneberg said, about 9,000 Coloradans have anonymously shared their COVID-19 diagnoses through the app. She called the app "powerful and valuable" at any level of adoption, citing research from Oxford and Google that suggests the apps, when combined with traditional contact tracing, can slow the spread of COVID-19 if even 15% of a population has downloaded it. Earlier research had pegged that number at 60%.

"Though 20% is a lot, that means 80% of Colordans are not using it. So we really are working hard to increase adoption," Tuneberg said.

Other states in the Mountain West, including Idaho, Montana and New Mexico, have not developed statewide contact tracing apps. Utah disabled the contact tracing element of its Healthy Together app, which relied on user location data, when only about 200 users opted in. Health officials in that state are reportedly considering adopting the Google Apple system to create a new contact-tracing tool.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

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