Does Michigan’s COVID-19 contact tracing app work? | Detroit Metro News | Detroit

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Lee De Vito

The MI COVID Alert app is supposed to notify you if you have been near an infected person. My phone is strangely silent.

About a year ago, Michigan got a new weapon in its battle against COVID-19: a contact tracing app.

Rolled out by governments around the world in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, these apps help traditional contact tracers – health workers who call people who have been in close contact with an infected person to alert them to a possible exposure – using a mobile phone data, allowing people the person does not know to be informed as well. In the United States, tech titans Apple and Google, whose operating systems are used by nearly every smartphone in the country, have joined forces to co-develop a framework for apps that could be adopted by authorities. local sanitary facilities. Called Exposure Notification, it uses Bluetooth wireless technology to communicate with nearby phones. Users who test positive for COVID-19 are supposed to upload a PIN to the app, which then notifies anyone else with the app who has been within six feet of them for at least 15 minutes. in the last 10 days. For the sake of privacy, it does so anonymously, so the identity of the infected person is not revealed.

It looked like it might be a game-changer. I downloaded the Michigan version of the app, MI COVID Alert, as soon as it came out. But nearly a year later, the app has never notified me of potential exposure.

At this point, it’s highly unlikely I’ll be within six feet of someone who has had COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the community spread of COVID-19 in much of the United States is “high,” meaning the virus is pretty much everywhere, including Oakland and New York counties. Wayne, where I spend most of my time. I’ve been to grocery stores, concerts at major theaters, and even a major festival in Illinois. (While MI COVID Alert will work with apps in other states that use the Apple and Google framework, the Illinois Department of Health has opted out. In the United States, less than half health authorities of states and territories have used the app.)

Part of the reason my phone has been oddly silent could be because Michigan’s contact tracing app hasn’t been downloaded by many people yet. According to Bob Wheaton, public information officer at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), 728,629 Michigan residents have downloaded the app so far, or just 7.2% of Michigan’s population. the state which has about 10 million inhabitants. The state spent $500,000 to develop the app, he says.

A study from the University of Oxford in England published in April 2020 raised hopes that the widespread use of contact tracing apps, along with other safety measures, could end COVID-19. “Our models show that we can stop the epidemic if around 60% of the population uses the app,” said lead author Christophe Fraser, “and even with a lower number of app users, we estimate still a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.” Another report published in Nature Wallet which looked at apps used in England and Wales found that for every 1% increase in the number of app users, the number of cases could be reduced by between 0.8% and 2.3%.

In an email, Wheaton says 5,376 people used MI COVID Alert to report a positive diagnosis of COVID-19, and the app sent 18,657 notifications to potential close contacts – a small fraction of the 1,253,227 cases. of COVID-19 reported in Michigan, which have resulted in at least 23,342 deaths.

But Kirsten Simmons, communications manager at MDHHS, says every notification counts.

“For the person receiving this notification, it can make all the difference,” Simmons said. Metro timetables. “Even if it is one person who receives this notification, it could mean that other people are spared from COVID-19 or lives saved.”

Of course, not everyone has a smartphone, including young people, old people and people who cannot afford one. Simmons says MI COVID Alert’s usage rate is higher if you limit it to the number of residents who likely own a smartphone, putting it between 10 and 20 percent of users.

A pilot program for the app launched in Ingham County in October 2020 had higher usage, with 46,704 people downloading the app in the first few weeks of the program, or about 23% of residents in the county. county aged 18 to 64. The pilot was pushed through a campaign that included media interviews, social media posts and aired ads, as well as help from Michigan State University.

But the other important thing about MI COVID Alert is that no matter how many times it is downloaded, it requires user participation to work.

“I think a common misconception is that MI COVID Alert creates and sends these alerts automatically,” says Simmons. “It depends on the users and the participation.”

There are other aspects of the app that aren’t ideal. WDET reported that some users said the app won’t let them self-report their positive COVID-19 tests due to an issue. Additionally, users must obtain a PIN number from the state health department confirming the positive test, which can take days to receive if the test needs to be sent to a testing center. It can also be difficult for people with COVID-19 to do something as simple as calling the health department to get the PIN, as common symptoms include fatigue and “brain fog.”

“I think a common misconception is that MI COVID Alert creates and sends these alerts automatically,” says Kirsten Simmons, director of communications at MDHHS. “It depends on the users and the participation.”

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The technology behind the app is also somewhat flimsy. Last year, a study of Google’s system published by PLOS ONE found that metal walls, floors, and ceilings distorted Bluetooth signal strength, making possible close contact inaccurate.

Still, Simmons says the app is just another tool to help stop the spread of the virus.

“It was always intended to be used in addition to contact tracing, in addition to wearing a mask and social distancing, or physical distancing,” she says. “And until we had a vaccine, those were really our best tools available.”

Simmons says that despite being fully vaccinated, she still has the app on her phone, especially given the possibility, albeit low, of “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people.

“I always want to know, and I think it’s always important for people to know if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive,” she says.

It’s no exaggeration to imagine that as this pandemic drags on – some experts have advised thinking of it as something that could take at least five years, putting us closer to its beginning than its end, while others postulated that COVID-19 might be with us longer – more people might be inclined to download the app. Other scientists said the technology could easily be modified to accommodate other viruses, with other pandemics likely in an increasingly interconnected world.

“Potentially, if there’s another health threat or another virus like this that comes up, it’s still possible,” Simmons says. “Of course, technology is constantly changing, so there could be other options too.”

Simmons encourages everyone to download the app if they haven’t already. Beyond the notification feature, it also displays data from Michigan’s COVID-19 dashboard, including the state’s vaccination rate, hospital intensive care bed occupancy, and others. trends.

“It’s still a useful tool, in addition to the contact tracing feature in the app that will tell people if they’ve been in close contact with someone, it just has good information about COVID-19 in Michigan, and tips for continuing to stay safe for people both if they haven’t been vaccinated yet and even if they’ve been fully vaccinated,” she says.

You can download the app for free from michigan.gov.

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