Pandemic Chronicles: Virus tracing in your pocket

State’s cell-based tracking application expanding its user base

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The state's COVID Trace smart phone app has more than 20,000 users so far.

Nevada’s cell phone-based COVID-19 tracker is off to a slow, but steady, start as about 1,000 new users per day are signing on to the tracing system.

“We’re at more than 20,000 users, which is pretty good,” said Tim Robb, an analyst with the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, on Sept. 2, when the app had been live for 12 days. “We’re encouraging everyone to use it… It’s an important tool in a large tool kit to address this virus. Nevadans can take ownership of their role to prevent infections through the use of this app in conjunction with social distancing, the use for face coverings, and other elevated hygiene habits.”

Nevada is among six states now using the new system, which is based on Bluetooth technology rather than GPS (satellite positioning). The tracker uses anonymous “tokens” that frequently change coding. Both activation and reporting functions are under the control of the users. Privacy advocates who have been concerned about GPS trackers employed in other phone tracing systems haven’t raised alarms about the Bluetooth application because it doesn’t reveal users’ locations. In addition, other internal controls prevent the app from storing or sharing user information.

The application, available for both iPhone and Android users, is called COVID Trace. It’s free and available from the platforms’ respective app stores. So far, COVID Trace has garnered an average 3.5 out of 5 stars rating from users. Some of the negative reviews listed at the stores came from people who had trouble reading the app on their devices or had couldn’t download the program. Those problems were solved as they arose, Robb said.

IMAGE/STATE OF NEVADA: A look at some of the COVID Trace screens.

“Some people had difficulties because of their (phones’) screen size and they had large text enabled on their phones, but we released an updated version to address that,” he said. “Our latest update included fixes to anything that has been identified as a possible issue for users so far. We’ll continue to make updates as needed to address any possible issues that come up.”

Robb said the developers have been quick to respond to any complaints or questions: “If anyone has a hard time downloading, or with the functionality, we will work with them closely to make sure they can easily use it,” he said. “We want them to be happy with it and to be able to tell their friends, family and coworkers about it and get them to use it as well.”

App needs a wide user base to become effective

Studies indicate that for the app to be effective statewide, about 60% of the population would have to install and use the system. That’s a tall order. In Nevada, with a population of about 3 million people, about 180,000 users would be needed to tip the balance. Robb said that probably isn’t going to happen, but he said the app also is valuable if 60 percent of other groups – such as employees of large businesses – get on board.

“Any contacts identified through this app will be helpful in our response to COVID-19… It’s more effective when 60% of the population has it, but that said, if greater than 60% of a workplace, friends group, or community is using this app, it will have a very positive impact on that group of people. We are working with several employers and community groups to encourage their staff and customers to use the app.”

— Tim Robb, analyst, Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s not available to everyone, though. Recent data indicates that one in six Americans still don’t own a smart phone and those without the devices are often older than age 65, a segment of the population at high risk for the virus. In addition, the app can’t be installed on many older devices.

The Nevada app is compatible with Android 7 systems or later versions. People with Android Version 6 phones can receive exposure notifications, but won’t be able to use other functions. Surveys indicate cell users, on average, hang on to their mobile phones for about  2.5 years before buying a new one. Android users, research shows, tend to keep their old phones longer than iPhone customers. There’s no data on the prevalence of Android 6 or older phones still in use in Nevada, but an unscientific survey of 12 Android users in Reno found three still using the “Android 6 version” and one user with an Android 5 version in her purse.

Still, with iPhones and Android versions having evolved to Series 11 in 2019, there’s a huge pool of potential users running Versions between 7 and 11 in the Silver State. A larger hurdle to widespread adoption of the app may be mistrust of the technology: the fear that Big Brother is watching your location, tapping into your private life, or is using the app as a conduit to sell your data.

Experts say privacy concerns are unfounded

A Washington Post-University of Maryland survey in April found that 3 in 5 Americans were unwilling or unable to use a Bluetooth app – the type now available in Nevada — that was then under development by Google and Apple. In another survey in June, 71% of respondents said they would not download a COVID tracing app due to privacy concerns.

“The privacy concern is a bit of a hurdle, but I think that if you look at our educational materials and what’s available on line, that’s addressed,” Robb said. “If people are curious, there’s ways to find out from a variety of sources about what we do and don’t do with the app.”

PHOTO/MICHELE D’OTTAVIO: The smartphone app uses Bluetooth to exchange “tokens” with nearby phones.

Standard contact tracking and tracing employs human investigators who interview people after they test positive for the virus. The subjects are asked to recall every person they were within 6 feet of for at least 15 minutes while infectious. That method relies on peoples’ memories and their openness to relay personal information to a stranger on a telephone. Even when people want to be cooperative, it’s difficult for them to remember or even be aware of who they have been near in crowded places like stores, casinos or campuses.

Tracing depends on anonymous ‘tokens’

If enough people take advantage of the COVID Trace app, state officials said, the phone automatically does the tracing. The system relies on anonymous Bluetooth “tokens” that are traded among phones that get close to one another. The application does not ask to use a phone’s location data, user’s name, address, phone contacts, health information, or any of the information about the phones near the user’s device.

In a webinar Aug. 21, Dudley Carr, one of the developers, explained that when two phones are close to each other, they will exchange and store the tokens via the phones’ Bluetooth function. When a phone receives a token marked “positive,” a contact tracer will then ask the user if they can share their information from the app.

“The health authority now has all the tokens you’ve given out over the last two weeks,” Carr said. “It doesn’t say anything about who that person is, where they’ve been, who they’ve came in contact to. It is purely the random numbers.” Each person’s phone will scan to see if it has collected any tokens that match the token of a positive person. That information “is exclusively known to that phone,” he said.

Carr said even the developers don’t have access to users’ health information and the app “certainly doesn’t share that with anybody else.”

Julia Peek, the deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said the app is a “fast and discreet” way of letting people knows if they’ve been exposed. “After being notified, they can take early and quick action to prevent the spread to their friends, family, coworkers and the general public,” she said.

Jim Murren, COVID-19 Task Force leader and former MGM Resorts International CEO, is talking to dozens of employers, including MGM Resorts and Caesars entertainment, about using the app. “They believe not only is this important for their employees but for the community itself,” he said. 

Some Nevada businesses encourage use of the app

To use COVID Trace, users download the free app and opt-in to the Exposure Notification System. That system generates a random ID for each user’s device. To help ensure those IDs can’t be used to identify a person or location, they change every 10-20 minutes. The user’s phone and surrounding phones will work in the background to exchange these random IDs via Bluetooth, a passive process which begins once the user opts-in, and functions without the app open.

The app doesn’t drain the phone’s battery. It can be turned on and off by the user.

The user’s phone periodically checks all the random IDs associated with positive COVID19 cases against its own list. If there is a match, the app will notify the user with further instructions from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services about what to do next to stay safe and keep others safe.

Robb said companies and organizations encouraging their employees to use the app include the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Las Vegas Raiders, Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Boyd Gaming Corporation, Vegas Chamber, Latin Chamber, Allegiant Air, R&R Partners, Top Rank, NV Energy and several of the state’s counties and cities.

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