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Want Contact Tracing to Work? Consider the Demographics

A new study suggests that age, gender and even the region of the country being targeted with virus-tracking technology could have a lot to do with its success rate. Experts urge a tailored approach.

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Since the start of COVID-19, governments worldwide have scrambled to come up with tech solutions to track the spread of the virus. While many U.S. states have managed to roll out contact tracing programs, convincing local populations to use them has been challenging in many cases.

Pew Research report from May showed that a majority of Americans were largely undecided on whether they trusted contact tracing programs or not. Indeed, some 60 percent of respondents said they didn't see why sharing data with the government would help stem the spread of the virus, and about half said they felt it was inappropriate to do so. 

Now a new report from software development vendor Myplanet shows that some Americans may also be split on the kinds of contact tracing tech they feel comfortable engaging with, depending on their age, gender and regional affiliation. 

The survey, conducted in June, looked at respondents throughout the country between the ages of 18 and 65, questioning them about their level of comfort with a variety of contact tracing solutions. Those solutions included a mobile app, a health tracking wearable smart watch and an app on a smart watch.   

The results show that, depending on age and location, Americans may trust one solution more than another. The survey results also showed that there is still widespread distrust of contact tracing programs overall, meaning that governments have their work cut out and may need to take different approaches when appealing to different demographic groups. 

"In the U.S. a key element that comes up is privacy and a secondary element that comes up is ethicacy," said Jason Cottrell, Myplanet CEO and co-founder, speaking with Government Technology. "From a privacy perspective, [Americans are wondering] who has my data? How much of it? Could this be used for other purposes?"

According to reports, the U.S. has some of the highest testing levels in the world. Yet there are still communities that are not being tested. This, paired with underfunding for such programs and a lagging contact tracer workforce, has sometimes worked against the effectiveness of contact tracing programs.  

With all that in mind, it behooves public officials to carefully consider the types of applications and devices used in tracing efforts and how to appeal to the public. How governments should approach the rollout of contact tracing solutions may be optimized by taking different approaches for different age groups, Cottrell said. 

Generally, younger populations are more trusting of most applications, said Cottrell. It's in older populations that more distrust is to be found. Men are slightly more trusting of all tracing solutions than women, though not in a statistically meaningful way. There are also some surprising geographical discrepancies, too. For example, respondents in the Northeast and the South generally expressed more distrust than those in the West and Midwest, for instance, according to the report. 

"When people are making public policy decisions and they're trying to make sense out of public sentiment I think it's really important to distinguish [between the different] demographic groups and the use cases," he said. "If you're deploying say an app at a regional level, and if it's to help get students who are going back to school, this can be a viable tool that people are comfortable with."

But the changes, Cottrell said, with older and more at-risk populations. More work may have to be put into educating that population about the benefits of using these tools, he said.    

Of all three devices listed in the survey, anywhere from some 20 to 47 percent of the respondents said they were uncomfortable with the device, according to the Myplanet report. In all of these cases, most who expressed distrust were older.  

"There are certain populations that do not have smartphones, and they are actually some of the more at-risk demographics," he said. "We see that when we get into demographics, 65-plus, we do see a shift there," he said. "There's less trust there, and more uncertainty."

In all cases, proper education campaigns around the benefits of contact tracing are important, as are finding the device that most appeals to a target demographic, he said. 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.