Apple and Google collaborate for virtual contact tracing app, Ohio health departments not yet on board

Local News

DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – In efforts to pinpoint individual cases of the coronavirus before they spread, Apple and Google have collaborated to create an app that notifies people if they might have been exposed to someone with the virus. The new technology will use Bluetooth to record when smartphones come near other Apple or Android devices. Android users who have downloaded the correct health authority app for their area and iOS users who have enabled exposure notifications, will then be alerted if the owner of a device near them has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Deputy Director of the Ohio Department of Health, Joanne Pearsol, said while some other states and municipalities are already implementing the new service, Ohio has yet to get on board.

“We have looked into it, and continue to keep it on our regular rotation list that we explore to see if the technology has improved or if the uptake on using the technology has improved, that would warrant our exploring that in a more purposeful way,” she said.

According to the tech giants, local health departments must approve the use of the app in their regions, since they are the only entities allowed to use information recorded in the app. So far, not a single county or municipality in Ohio has signed up. Pearsol said at the state level, the pros and cons are still being weighed, but there are a few reasons why the app hasn’t gotten the green light.

“It can exclude certain individuals from participating,” Pearsol said. “So you have to have the app on your phone, you have to have a smartphone. You have to enable the app. Not everyone has that technology, and those who don’t have the technology tend to be among the most vulnerable populations who are more affected by COVID to begin with.”

She added, as of now, the ODH hasn’t figured out a way use the app in a way that would include these more vulnerable populations, while incorporating the necessary human resources component that real-life tracing offers.

“The contact tracing is really about getting in touch with those people, letting them know they’ve been exposed and hooking them up with potential resources that could be helpful to them,” Pearsol said.

In the Miami Valley, officials from Public Health – Dayton and Montgomery County, and Greene County Public Health said they don’t currently have plans to begin using the app. But Pearsol said that doesn’t mean it’s completely out of the question for the future. She said the app offers some positives in terms of speed and communication that may take less time than traditional contact tracing.

“It can certainly help streamline information and organize information. It can give potentially very rapid notification to someone if they have been exposed to someone who’s tested positive. So in that way, it could theoretically help to expand the reach to notify contacts of their potential status or exposure.”

In doing so, Apple and Google have addressed security concerns, stating that the app will not cause any breach of privacy. The companies explained on their websites, that each registered Bluetooth a device is assigned a random ID that changes every 10-20 minutes, ensuring location and other personal information is not being stored. Then, according to Google,

“Your phone periodically checks all the random IDs associated with positive COVID-19 cases against its own list.

If there’s a match, the app will notify you with further instructions from your public health authority on how to keep you and the people around you safe.”

For now, though, Pearsol said, safely tracking cases and notifying Ohio residents will continue to be handled through state and local health departments via phone calls and emails. 2 NEWS will follow any developments to the story.

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