Smartphone contact tracing could help in fight against COVID-19

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Earlier this week, Judge Lina Hildago announced that Harris County would be recruiting around 300 contact tracers.

On the state level, Gov. Abbott announced that Phase II of his plan to reopen Texas would require adding an additional 1,000 contact tracers to track COVID-19, and 4,000 more at Phase III. These community health workers will be charged with contacting Texans to let them know they recently came in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

Right now, it's all pretty low tech, but coming soon, contact tracing will be powered by the technology we already use every day.

Assistant professor Chris Bronk at the University of Houston's College of Technology said "everybody carries a smartphone, and a smartphone can remind all of us of who exactly we came into contact with."

He says by using Bluetooth technology, we may be alerted by our phones if we've come in contact with someone that tests positive. It's a technology that both Apple and Google have partnered on and expected to release sometime in May.

So, how will it work? Take for example, two individuals who don't know each other and strike up a conversation in a grocery store. We'll call them John and Mary. They're a few feet apart, which allows their phones to communicate with each other through a Bluetooth beacon identifier that changes often. Then a few days later, John falls ill and tests positive for COVID-19. He enters those test results into his phone. Mary will then receive an alert on her phone sometime after, notifying that she was recently exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, with additional information on what to do next.

"Essentially what contact tracing allows us to do electronically is to see a much larger, larger map of people" Bronk said.

It won't tell you who is positive or where you may have had contact, but just that you were close enough to be exposed to someone with the virus.

Chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, Dr. James McCarthy says this will be extremely helpful in the continued fight against COVID-19.

"It could be a powerful new tool for us to help better track patients once they've been identified" Dr. McCarthy said. Adding "as testing becomes much more widespread, in our region and throughout, we're going to need tools that help us point that testing where it needs to go."

For patients that have already recovered from the virus, there's optimism. Last month, a few members of Angelique Bartholomew's family tested positive for COVID-19, herself included.

"The most fearful night was probably the fourth night when you realize that you have something going on that could actually take your life" Bartholomew shared with ABC13.

Having gone through the experience first hand, she says contact tracing is something she'll definitely participate in.

"I'm totally open to it" Bartholomew said.

But, what about privacy? People who test positive are kept anonymous from other users, but most importantly from Apple and Google. It's important to know that location data will not be collected as well. Contact tracing apps will be developed for health authorities already working within HIPAA guidelines.

"There are privacy concerns whenever you open up your device, but I would not view this as a privacy concern." Bronk said.

Once apps are released to the public, downloading and using them are strictly voluntary. If you're not comfortable sharing your information anonymously with others, the choice is simple, don't install it.

As for Bartholomew, she hopes the public takes this seriously and opts in.

"I would say be open to it. Consider what it means and the value of it. Not just right now, but how it will impact when things open back up again" Bartholomew said.

ABC13 reached out to both Apple and Google about their partnership. Google shared the following information regarding privacy:

Solutions implemented using principles of privacy, transparency, user control:

  • Explicit user consent required

  • List of people you've been in contact with never leaves the phone

  • Will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management

  • Users control any data they choose to share

  • People who test positive are kept anonymous from other users, but most importantly from Apple and Google

  • Doesn't collect location data

  • Bluetooth privacy-preserving beacons rotate every 10-20 minutes, to help prevent tracking

  • The system is only used for exposure notification by official public health authorities, and isn't monetized

  • Google and Apple can disable the system on a regional basis when it is no longer needed

  • This technology is only for COVID responses -- we don't intend to keep this running beyond this pandemic

You can read more information about the technology here:


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