DeSantis says contact tracing hasn’t worked. So why is Florida paying for this app?

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Governor Ron DeSantis’ new target in his ongoing clashes with public health experts is one of the foundations of their profession: contact tracing.

It “just didn’t work,” DeSantis categorically told reporters last week in Palm Harbor.

A day later, DeSantis convened a group of its leading scientists, who took turns choosing the disease control tool.

Despite these criticisms, the DeSantis administration continues to pay a hefty sum for a New York-based company to provide the state with a mobile contact tracing application. App developer Twenty Labs has received Florida $ 4 million so far, according to the state’s online contracts database. The last installment of $ 200,000 was paid on March 12 – days before DeSantis declared contact tracing an ineffective strategy.

Florida hired Twenty Labs last summer on an emergency no-tender contract. The company had little track record in epidemiology before 2020, but its coronavirus app Healthy Together had received a take on national television from Vice President Mike Pence. The startup co-founder is the son of a Palm Beach billionaire and a donor to former President Donald Trump, a close ally of DeSantis.

The contract with Twenty Labs is one of many that the DeSantis administration has signed over the past year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The evolving nature of the crisis meant that the state had to act quickly to slow the spread of the epidemic. To do this, DeSantis and its agencies have used emergency powers to waive state laws that require competitive bids for state contracts.

But a year after the start of the pandemic, there has been little monitoring or accounting for how DeSantis has spent the money and even less response to why some companies have been asked for the work of the ‘State. Department of Health spokesperson Jason Mahon did not answer questions about how Twenty Labs was chosen to build Healthy Together and why it was chosen over other companies.

“The state is continually evaluating strategies that have worked to contain COVID-19,” Mahon said in a statement, “and we will continue to use our experience of this pandemic to guide future disease control efforts in Florida. “

There are two apps for this

By the time Healthy Together first appeared in Google and Apple app stores, the Florida Department of Health already had a basic mobile contact tracing app, Stronger Than C-19, which was dated of a few months. It was built by another company, World Wide Technology of St. Louis, at a cost of almost $ 450,000.

At a press conference in March, DeSantis said he personally gave the green light to the creation of the Stronger Than C-19 app. Its April launch was announced in a press release from the Florida Department of Health. Like the deal with Twenty Labs, this was also an emergency purchase. The most recent payment of $ 68,000 was made on December 2.

Mahon declined to comment on why Florida needed a second contact tracing app. He said Healthy Together was “an innovative solution” for locating local contacts and delivering test results. He added that all Florida contact tracing expenses will be paid for with grants or federal funds, and that the state is using data from its two coronavirus applications “to inform our response to COVID-19.”

The state paid both app developers throughout 2020 even as DeSantis began to degrade on contact tracing.

In July of last year, a month after making a deal with Twenty Labs, DeSantis downplayed strategy in the face of questions about state involvement in local contact tracing efforts.

“When you have a lot of these asymptomatic 20-year-olds, there’s not a lot of effective contact tracing with them because they haven’t been so cooperative in doing it,” DeSantis said.

Contact tracing is one of the oldest methods of disease control. This involves interviewing a person to determine the source of their illness and making a list of people they may have infected. This can be an essential tool in spotting emerging hot spots so public health officials know where to direct their time and attention.

At the start of the pandemic, Florida recruited hundreds of public health students to help with its statewide contact tracing effort. Local county health departments have used the CARES law dollars to hire more people to interview infected residents about their recent history. But critics said the effort was disorganized and underfunded, and within months staff, many of whom were on temporary hires, could hardly keep up with the volume of new cases as the outbreak reached every corner of the world. Florida.

Lately, DeSantis has suggested that the coronavirus is too much of a challenge for contact tracing to work. At an event last week, DeSantis and a select group of scientists held a one-sided debate on the effectiveness of contact tracing and came to the same conclusion, calling it “counterproductive.” and “bad strategy”.

“To think that it can be used for a pandemic is naïve to the max,” said Martin Kulldorff, a professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the main skeptics of the coronavirus response advocated by most scientists.

Thomas Hladish, a researcher at the Institute of Emerging Pathogens at the University of Florida, said Florida has never implemented a comprehensive or consistent contact tracing strategy. That’s why it failed, not because contact tracing isn’t working, he said.

“It’s like showing up in a burning house with a water gun and saying that water doesn’t put out fires,” Hladish said. “You didn’t do it right in the first place.”

Links to Trump’s donor

Twenty Labs is a startup that created Twenty, a social dating app. He had no background in disease prevention when the company launched Healthy Together in Utah, but it quickly generated a national buzz with spotlight on the Today show and on the popular tech website TechCrunch.

He received another boost in April during a nationwide televised briefing from the White House Coronavirus Task Force when Pence highlighted Healthy Together as a key part of the pandemic response. ‘Utah.

Twenty Labs chief strategy officer Jared Allgood told the Tampa Bay weather that a representative from Florida approached the company after Healthy Together launched in Utah. The company initially helped the state “step up its contact tracing operation,” Allgood said. Twenty Labs has created a case management system capable of handling all data entry from thousands of local workers hired to interview new coronavirus cases.

The initial contract was signed in June by Shamarial Roberson, Assistant Secretary of State for Health, and Darren Peltz, CEO and co-founder of the company. Peltz is the son of Nelson Peltz, a hedge fund billionaire who has helped run some of the world’s biggest companies. Last year, Nelson Peltz launched a fundraiser for Trump’s re-election candidacy at his lavish Palm Beach estate that cost $ 580,000 per couple to attend.

Twenty Labs shares a Manhattan address with Trian Partners, the hedge fund company founded by Nelson Peltz. Darren Peltz used an email address for Trian Partners on the contract he signed with the state. The Florida Bulldog news site first reported in December on the contract with Twenty Labs and its links with Trian Partners.

When asked if anyone in the state had a conversation with the White House prior to hiring Twenty Labs, Mahon replied, “Any suggestion that a supplier was selected on the basis of political connections is manifestly false.

The governor’s office made a second pact with Twenty Labs later in 2020 and Healthy Together launched in Florida in November. Three states are now using Twenty Labs’ contact tracing app – Utah, Florida, and Oklahoma.

After a person has been tested for the coronavirus, they receive a text message encouraging them to view the result through the app, sometimes duplicating results sent directly from the local county health department or testing site. . If they test positive, they are encouraged to complete a contact tracing assessment through the app. Allgood told the Time that Healthy Together has 1.6 million users in Florida and provided 5 million test results.

Allgood said Healthy Together has helped reduce the time it takes to learn about a person’s positive infection. About 40% of app users who test positive complete their contact tracing interview through the app, typically within 2.5 hours, he said. It can sometimes take days for a county health department to contact someone who has tested positive.

“If you make the phone call three weeks late, you’re not actually doing a contact tracing,” Allgood said. “So in that sense, I think we agree with Governor Desantis.”

Michael Wiese, chief epidemiologist at the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, said contact tracing remains an essential tool, especially as the volume of cases declines and variants appear. Healthy Together helped capture some of this data, he said.

Other officials from the local health department told the Time that Healthy Together data is often incomplete or subjective and always requires an in-person follow-up call. Others, like the Hernando County branch of the state’s health department, do not use data sent from the app, a spokesperson said.

“Even after receiving data into our system from the app, our investigators are still calling subjects to gather information,” said Maggie Hall, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, “c This is how contact tracing really works – and has worked – to protect the public.

Unlike the rollout of the Stronger Than C-19 app, the state has not made public its partnership with Twenty Labs or the launch of Healthy Together. There is little recognition of the app on the Florida Department of Health website.

Hladish told the Time: “I am a software developer and epidemiologist working for the State of Florida, and had no idea that (Healthy Together) existed. “

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