RALEIGH, NC (AP) – Six months ago, Apple and Google introduced a new smartphone tool is designed to inform people who may be exposed to the coronavirus without providing any personal information. For the most part, Americans have not had that much interest.
Less than half of all U.S. states and territories (18 in total) have made this technology widely available. And according to data analysis by The Associated Press, most Americans in those locations have not activated the tool.
Data from 16 states, Guam and the District of Columbia show that 8.1 million people used the technology at the end of November. That’s about one in 14 of the region’s 110 million people.
In theory, such applications could promote one of the most difficult tasks in pandemic control: searching for contacts of people infected with coronavirus, testing and isolating them if necessary. In practice, however, experts and users say that COVID-19 has overwhelmed inadequate information, the complexity of the technology, the urgency of health workers who need to quickly confirm the diagnosis, and the general lack of awareness.
“There are a lot of things working against that,” said Jessica Vita, an associate professor at the University of Maryland University of Information Studies. “Unfortunately, in the US, COVID has become much more politicized than in any other country. I think it affects people’s willingness to use tracking tools. ”
In Charlotte, North Carolina, attorney Evan Metaxatos gladly accepted the November tracking application for his state, called SlowCOVIDNC. He immediately unloaded and was followed by his parents and his pregnant wife.
But there are still no high values in the state, as the app was launched in September with great fanfare. With a population of about 10.5 million in the state, only 482,003 were installed at the end of November.
“It won’t work until everyone uses it, but it’s better than nothing,” Metaxatos said.
Apple and Google have jointly created the main technology behind such apps, and use Bluetooth wireless signals to detect them anonymously when both phones have passed the time. If an app user tests positive for a virus, that person’s phone may cause a notification To other people who have been around for a long time – without revealing their names, locations or any other identifying information.
In states like Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Washington, as well as Washington DC, iPhone users don’t even need to download an app. In fact, Apple is asking users to activate the notification system through new windows by adjusting their phone settings.
In these states, adoption rates are significantly higher. But even in the most successful state in Connecticut, only one-fifth of all residents have done so. On Friday, Washington said more than a million states lived there – approximately 13% of the population – activated the technology in the first four days.
Virginia’s COVIDWISE app was launched on August 5th and was the first live. Since then, less than one in ten people have downloaded it, even though the state has done so with almost 20% of Virginians between the ages of 18 and 65 with a smartphone. Delaware app downloads account for about 7% of the state’s population.
All other U.S. states studied have much lower adoption rates.
New York launched the app on October 1st. It recently surpassed one million downloads, which is about 5% of the population. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have seen less use, with a 4% download rate.
Adoption is even lower in Wyoming, North Dakota, Michigan, Nevada, and Alabama, and users represent only 1% to 3% of their state’s population. Application links and instructions for activating iPhone notifications are usually available on state health department websites.
The Irish developer of NearForm applications says more than a quarter of the Irish population uses its COVID-19 application. It has been more difficult to achieve such traction in four U.S. states that have built similar applications: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
In Ireland, “all parties to the political divide agreed with a consistent message about this,” said Larry Breen, head of trade at NearForm. “This debate continues in rage in favor of the pond.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the reception has been mixed. Germany and Great Britain have similar penetration rates to Ireland; In Finland, it is 45%, according to data collected by the MIT Technology Review. In France, however, less than 4% of the population uses the official COVID application, which rejects the Apple-Google approach to achieve a more intrusive data collection system that creates privacy issues and technical issues.
Security experts have praised the Apple-Google system for protecting user anonymity, but for many people it has been a tough sale. U.S. users have maintained their participation in COVID-19’s partisanship, privacy concerns, and stigma. The lack of state and federal efforts to raise awareness has not helped.
Neither do technological and bureaucratic issues.
Lee McFarland, a loan officer in Grand Forks, North Dakota, was eager to download his state-run Care19 Alert app but after taking the virus in late October he couldn’t press the “Notify others” button.
“If you test positive, a public health official will call and verify your code,” says a message on the McFarland app. “This ensures that only certified COVID-19 positives can send notifications.”
McFarland said he forgot to tell the health care worker that he had the app installed on his phone. He was unsuccessful in tracking with the employee to get the required code, and has since deleted the app.
Even when this process works, many North Dakotas don’t press the button to let others know.
Tim Brookins, chief executive of app developer Tim Brookins, said 14,000 active North Dakota users had the “Report to others” button enabled to 91 after confirming that the status is positive. Only 29 of the 91 users pressed the button, which resulted in 50 notifications.
However, many users say they will keep the app, while others will see its potential benefits.
“You can say almost anything people do about this or that, but anyone who does something helps,” said David Waechter, a general contractor in Lenoir, North Carolina. “I think the United States can use a strong dose of E pluribus unum and stop thinking about itself and start thinking about our countrymen.”
O’Brien reported from Providence (Rhode Island). AP journalist Kelvin Chan helped from London.
Anderson is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative team. Report for America is a national non-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on covered topics.