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App to Trace Virus Exposure Runs Into Familiar Obstacles

COVID-19 misinformation is among the factors affecting the technology's adoption
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 6, 2020 10:05 AM CST

(Newser) – Six months ago, Apple and Google introduced a 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 US states and territories—19 in total—have made such technology widely available. And according to a data analysis by the AP, the vast majority of Americans in such locations haven't activated the tool. Data from 16 states, Guam, and the District of Columbia show that 8.1 million people had used the technology as of late November. That's about one in 14 of the 110 million residents in those regions. In theory, such apps could bolster one of the most difficult tasks in pandemic control: tracing the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus in order to test and isolate them if necessary. In practice, 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 all presented obstacles.

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"There’s a lot of things working against it," said an expert at the University of Maryland. “Unfortunately, in the US, COVID has been politicized far more than in any other country. I think that's affecting people’s willingness to use tools to track it." Charlotte lawyer Evan Metaxatos was thrilled to learn in November about North Carolina's tracking app, SlowCOVIDNC. He immediately downloaded it and got his parents and pregnant wife to follow suit. But they're outliers. Of roughly 10.5 million state residents, only 482,003 had installed the app through the end of November. "It won't work great until everyone's using it, but it's better than nothing," Metaxatos said. Adoption rates are notably higher in states that don't require downloading an app for iPhones. But even in the most successful state, Connecticut, only about a fifth of all residents have opted in. Irish app developer NearForm says more than one-quarter of Ireland’s population uses its COVID-19 app. In Ireland, "all sides of the political divide came together with a consistent message on this is what we need to do," said an executive. "That debate continues to rage on your side of the pond."

(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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