A new app can now turn your smartphone into an important tool to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Contact tracing is a major part of public health officials’ plans to contain the virus as the economy reopens, and the COVID Safe Paths app that could help is now live.
Contact tracing involves following a person’s steps for the two weeks before they were diagnosed to determine who they interacted with so those people can self-isolate if needed. People find it difficult to remember all the places they went in a two-week period. Right now, it might not be that tough since most of us have been staying home, but as we resume semi-normal activity, retracing our footsteps will become harder.
Enter the COVID Safe Paths app, available for both Apple and Google.
“Having that data on your phone will be useful if you get sick,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said.
The app catalogs location data as you move around. If you have it turned on and come into contact with a person who has been confirmed to be COVID-19-positive, the app can tell you.
“It’s only close contacts,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond told Teton County commissioners a couple weeks ago, when they were weighing approval of the app. “If you pass someone in the pasta aisle at the grocery store, you won’t get [an alert], but if you had a lunch meeting at Starbucks with them you’ll get one.”
The board voted to negotiate a contract with Safe Paths, a nonprofit created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers that developed the app,which is open source and free to the county and users for at least the first year.
If a person who has the app tests positive for the coronavirus, they can report that to the health department. The app will then share the person’s location data for the previous two weeks to aid in contact tracing.
Pond told commissioners that the health department wouldn’t keep data on its servers for more than a month.
As the app rolls out, “the more people who sign up, the better,” Public Health Response Coordinator Rachael Wheeler said.
The app may help mostly with tracking local cases, but it also could be useful if tourists download it while they are visiting the area. Doing so could keep them safer by alerting them to exposure, and it could help track cases imported into the community.
That will require advertising, Wheeler said. The health department is considering how to do that, whether posting flyers at businesses and hotels, or running an ad campaign at Jackson Hole Airport.
County Commissioner Greg Epstein had that exact idea in mind when Pond presented the plan two weeks ago. He asked Pond “what story they could tell” to convince people that the app was a good idea and that their privacy would be protected.
It would require buy-in from residents, Pond replied, and an understanding that it is something that can help people stay healthy.
“This isn’t South Korea or one of those places where they seize your phone,” she said. “This is really a voluntary tool we can use as a community to help us do better contact tracing.”