A contact tracing app is in the works — but will Virginians use it?


CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) – Before coronavirus began sweeping through the population, contact tracing was a mitigation strategy primarily known among public health circles. 

But as the commonwealth tries to ramp up its ability to track and contain the virus, contact tracers have come into the public eye, as has a new tool that may soon be at their disposal in Virginia. 

The Virginia Department of Health is internally testing an app called COVIDWISE that would augment human contact tracing efforts, according to department spokesperson Julie Grimes. 

“For individuals who download the exposure notification app on their cell phone, who test positive for COVID-19 and use the app to report being COVID-19 positive, the app will notify those who were in close proximity to them,” Grimes wrote in an email. 

But earlier this spring, as soon as VDH and other public health agencies announced plans to create, test and roll out such apps earlier this spring, concerns about privacy surfaced online.  

Epidemiologist Lisa Engle, who works in the Chesapeake Health District, says she noticed a shift in attitudes around that time. 

“There’s a lot of negative publicity on the TV and media about the contact tracing and the fact that they think the government’s watching them,” Engle said. “So I don’t know how easily people will adapt to an app like that.” 

Engle says she has particularly noticed the backlash on social media, and worries it will get worse.  

“I’ve seen friends post on social media, ‘If you sign up for this app, defriend me,’” she said. “People are saying, ‘Don’t let the government control you, don’t answer the phone from the health department.’” 

That sort of resistance makes the job of contact tracers more difficult, because patient cooperation is critical to their efforts.

Engle acknowledges, however, that such an app would help pinpoint outbreaks more quickly.  

While it’s under development, Engle and her team do their jobs the old-fashioned way: labs and providers send positive cases to the health department, then the contact tracers reach out by phone. 

“I tell them right away, ‘I got your information because this is a reportable disease. We’re trying to make sure we stop the spread of it and find out where you may have gotten it from,’” she said.  

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Contact tracing has been used for other public health emergencies, most notably for sexually transmitted infection outbreaks.  

Engle says those conversations are comparatively more difficult than those involving coronavirus.   

“For the most part, people want to talk about their symptoms, because if you think about it, no two are alike. The symptoms on this are vast,” she said. “They’re kind of wanting information from you.” 

The goal is to find out where the patient was and who they saw in the days surrounding their test, so that people who interacted with the patient can be contacted and encouraged to quarantine and get tested.  

An app would speed up that part of the process, but Engle says that human interaction – even if it’s just over the phone – will be an irreplaceable part of the process, especially for the older and higher-risk part of the population.  

“I think [the app] may help, the younger generation may be wanting to do it,” she said. “But I think, for the most part, many are not going to be so readily available to doing it.” 

During a press conference in May announcing the creation of a contact tracing app, VDH Deputy Commissioner of Administration Mona Bector acknowledged that privacy would be a concern during its development.  

“We plan to be very transparent, because we are trying to help people and not make them fearful of any kind of new technology,” Bector said.  

When COVIDWISE launches, individuals will have to download it and manually turn the app on, according to Grimes, who said that could happen later this month, if testing goes well.  

“The design of the app is intended to maximize privacy while allowing people to opt-in and aid communities in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote. “No personal data or location tracking occurs within the app.” 

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