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New App Tells Users If They’ve Been Exposed to COVID-19

While usage questions persist, the app, dubbed CombatCOVID, now offers South Floridians a chance to see what has been invisible until now: whether they’ve crossed paths with someone who has the coronavirus.

by Angie DiMichele, Sun Sentinel / July 27, 2020
TNS/UF Health Jacksonville

(TNS) — It’s a scary notification to get on your cellphone: “Attention: You may have been exposed to COVID-19.”

That ominous warning is part of a new app called CombatCOVID that offers South Floridians a chance to see what has been invisible until now: whether they’ve crossed paths with someone who has the new coronavirus.

The app was developed by Shield Group Technologies in Palm Beach County and recently debuted on the Google Play store and is coming to Apple’s App Store.

But despite more than a million dollars in government support, the app still faces questions about how widely it will be accepted and whether it can truly make a difference in the battle against a raging disease.

Backers, including government officials in South Florida, are not deterred. They say they’re open to any tool that might help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Palm Beach County is paying $875,600 from its federal coronavirus aid to use the app, which the developer will maintain up to 2024. Miami-Dade plans to pay $775,000. Broward County Mayor Dale Holness said Broward may use the app, too, but that has not been determined.

The app is free for users to download. Here’s how it works:

If a person tests positive, they must enter the information into the app. The app then uses Bluetooth to detect other phones that passed within 6 to 13 feet within the past 14 to 21 days.

If the app determines the phones were in contact long enough to be a risk, it sends an alert warning that the person may have been exposed. The app will not reveal exactly when and where it happened, just that the person should get tested.

“You don’t know who it was from. You don’t know what day it happened, and you don’t know where it happened,” said Roger Koch, CEO of Shield Group Technologies. “And there is a trade-off. In a perfect world, I think some people would love to have that information. But the trade-off is people will not download and use technology that does all of that in our country in this day and age.”

Koch was referring partly to privacy and security concerns that have plagued other apps used to battle the coronavirus.

In North Dakota, an app transferred users’ information to Google and Foursquare for advertising purposes, and an app in South Korea allowed hackers to find the names and information of people in quarantine, said Sarah Kreps, a professor of government and law at Cornell University who has researched the challenges that contact-tracing apps face in the United States.

Research has shown that apps are more effective when high percentages of the population use them, but skepticism may thwart them from gaining full traction, Kreps said.

In Utah, for example, less than 2% of the state’s population had downloaded a contact-tracing app a month after its launch, after the state had paid nearly $3 million for it, Buzzfeed News reported.

Kreps cited research from Oxford University showing that about 60% of the population would need to use the app to slow the pandemic.

“You can see how there’s this negative feedback loop where people say, ‘Well we’re never going to hit 60%. Why should I download this?‘” she said. “And everyone starts thinking that, so no one downloads it. In fact, if you can get 10%, that’s better than nothing.”

Developers of CombatCOVID have been mindful of security concerns, Koch said. The app doesn’t store a user’s personal information in any list or database. It solely uses Bluetooth signals to communicate with other devices rather than GPS tracking, which could lead to privacy concerns.

Though it is not possible to tell how many people will use the app, Palm Beach County plans to advertise it to residents, said Mayor Dave Kerner. The county has plans to send residents four masks in the mail, along with a pamphlet with instructions about how to download CombatCOVID.

“This is sort of developing, in-the-heat-of-the-moment technology that we think would be effective,” Kerner said. “And so the truth is, I don’t know how widespread the use will be.”

Any technology that keeps the pandemic in the forefront of peoples’ minds is valuable, Kerner said.

“We are in the thick of it, 60 miles away from Miami, and we have our own struggles here locally,” he said.

Verdenia Baker, Palm Beach County’s administrator, said she discussed paying for the app with commissioners in May. As Florida continues to hit record-breaking numbers, Baker said CombatCOVID appeared to be a possible answer to slowing the virus’ spread.

“As this pandemic continues to impact us, we’re all looking for answers, some solutions on how we curb this spike that we’re in and start to curtail the spread of it,” Baker said. “This app will allow us to at least communicate to each other, know quicker when we have been in contact or near someone with it when it’s up and running. I think that is worth its weight in gold alone.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county’s one-time payment of $775,000 will allow the county to use the app for up to five years.

“We’re going to try to get as many people on it as possible,” Gimenez said. “I think it’s a great tool for people to know they’ve been somehow exposed.”

About four other Florida counties and four states have expressed interest in using CombatCOVID, Koch said. He declined to identify which counties and states.

For the app to make a difference in curbing the virus’ spread, the more users the better, Koch said.

“If we can help 100 people or 500 people or 1,000 people, then I think we’re successful,” he said. “We want to hopefully help a lot more than that.”

©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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