A Contact Tracing App Is Key To Slowing COVID-19. So Why Aren't More People Using It?

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With an 80 percent success rate in contact tracing, few can match Northern Kentucky Health Department's lead on notifying and following up with potential COVID-19 targets. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci is urging the rest of the nation to do more contact tracing before it's too late. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director and White House advisor told CNBC communities need to ramp up testing. "It's not going well. Billions of dollars that were given to the CDC to distribute to the states for the purpose of identification, isolation, contact tracing, and that meant, do whatever you need to do... if you need to build a hotel to put people in there, do it!"

Part of the problem is there aren't enough contact tracers. The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) said the U.S. needs at least 100,000 which would cost $3.7 billion.

A contact-tracing-workforce estimator estimates Ohio needs 8,057 (68.9 per 100,000); Kentucky needs 2,918 (65 per 100,000); and Indiana needs 4,113 (61.5 per 100,000)

In Christie Aschwanden's article for Scientific American, Contact Tracing, a Key Way to Slow COVID-19, Is Badly Underused by the U.S., she said not everybody can be a contact tracer.

"It's really a process that's built on trust. The contact tracer has to convince the people that they need to self quarantine and so they need to be people who need to gain the trust of those folks," she said.

With the divisive political climate not everybody trusts contact tracers. Some have gotten death threats.

Northern Kentucky Health Department Epidemiology Manager Zach Raney hasn't gotten any death threats or a lot of push back. He tries to put the patient at ease.

"We always try to incorporate the individual that we're talking to into our investigation and make them a part of that investigation and we try to explain that talking with us and sharing the information that they're giving us will help prevent their loved ones from getting sick or becoming ill," he said.

Raney does have his frustrations, like when it's difficult to get a hold of somebody or when it takes more than a week to get test results back.

What could make his job easier is contact tracing apps but he understands there are privacy concerns.

Why Aren't People Using Contact Tracing Apps?

Once installed on a smartphone, the app communicates with other phones who have the app and notifies the user if somebody you have come in contact with has the virus.

This Wall Street Journal video explains it.


Researchers writing for the Harvard Business Review wanted to know how to get people to actually use the apps. They helped slow the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea, Germany, Singapore and Iceland. But the scientists point out that to be effective, contact-tracing apps must build a critical mass of engaged users and they really haven't done that.

Just like Facebook and What's App the researchers suggest targeting just a small community and gradually scale from there. For example: college dorms. An app has to be instantly valuable, they say, to anyone in the targeted community who downloads it. Privacy protections must also be in place.

Out of ideas? What about paying people to download a contact tracing app? Slate.com reports on one plan that would pay each American $1,000 to download and use a digital contact tracing application. The money could come from the economic stimulus plan.

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