For almost six months now, iPhone and Android users in Texas have had cutting-edge technology that can alert them if they’ve been exposed to the deadly coronavirus right in their pockets. The only problem is state and local health departments have so far chosen not to use it.
The technology — jointly developed by iPhone-maker Apple and Android operating system developer Google — was released back in May, and notifies users who have the tech enabled on their devices if they have come into contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19. The functionality is built-in to any iPhone or Android device that has up-to-date operating software.
One benefit of this tech is that it’s totally anonymous. Smartphones with the exposure notification switch turned-on send out and record signals from other phones via wireless Bluetooth technology, and the distance between any passing phones with exposure notifications enabled is recorded, as well as how long the two phones were close to each other, all without logging any sort of identifiable info about either person.
If someone who’s opted-in to the system is confirmed positive for COVID-19, any smartphone user who picked up a signal from that sick person’s phone in the last two weeks and was close enough to them for long enough to be at risk (a threshold set by local health departments, but typically defined as within six feet for at least 15 minutes by the CDC) gets beamed a message alerting them that they’ve come in contact with a coronavirus-carrier.
All of the states and territories that have opted-in to this technology have created their own apps that are built off of the exposure notification tech backbone created by Apple and Google. When residents in those areas find out they have COVID-19, they’re instructed to reach out to their local health departments, and are then given a unique code to plug-in to the health department’s exposure notification app to start the alert process.
So far, only 16 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam have created apps that use the built-in technology, and according to the Associated Press, only 8.1 million out of the 110 million residents in those areas have turned on exposure notifications. That’s not nearly enough users to make the system as useful as it could be, but at least those tens of millions of U.S. residents can take advantage of this tech to protect themselves and their families.
Frustratingly, Texas is one of the 32 states that’s turned a blind eye to this potentially powerful public health tool.
According to a spokeswoman from the Department of State Health Services, there isn’t currently any plan for the state health agency to create an app that would allow Texans to opt-in to this potentially lifesaving technology gifted to us by Apple and Google.
“Texas has a decentralized public health system,” said Lara Anton, press officer at DSHS. “There are more than 50 local health departments that conduct case investigations for their jurisdictions. DSHS is not using apps for case investigation, contact tracing or proximity notification in the jurisdictions served by our regional offices (those without a local health department). However, some of the local health departments may be using them as part of their case investigations.”
Anton is right that Texas’s public health departments are each pretty much allowed to do what they please, but it’s funny to see our state’s system described as decentralized.
After all, Gov. Greg Abbott has unilaterally moved to strip local officials like mayors, county judges and public health authorities of their power to enact strict rules to slow COVID-19’s spread in their jurisdictions and has leaned on his executive powers to give himself the sole authority to dictate the state's coronavirus response efforts, which feels about as centralized as you can get. If Abbott wanted to, he could recommend that DSHS develop a statewide app using Apple and Google’s exposure notification tech that Texans could voluntarily sign up for, and it’d almost surely come to pass.
That said, individual health departments in Texas could choose to develop their own exposure notification apps using Google and Apple’s technology if they were so inclined, although the health departments in Houston and Harris County haven’t done so yet.
Harris County Public Health’s Scott Jeansonne, who leads the county’s COVID-19 Incident Support Team and contact tracing efforts, described the exposure notification tech as “something that at the time we looked at,” but said the county health department chose not to implement it into their pandemic response strategy.
He said HCPH made that decision because the department was already comfortable using its beefed-up pre-existing text message alert system to notify potentially exposed county residents whom its contact tracers couldn’t contact over the phone, and was scared that adding a new application to the mix might confuse county residents.
“We knew what we had internal here. We knew that the system, the database we built, we knew what its capabilities were… there was somewhat of a concern of if we start changing it all the time, then maybe we lose that confidence and that trust in the public,” Jeansonne said.
Still, exposure notifications could have supplemented the existing county alert system, and with millions of dollars of CARES act funding rolling into Harris County, surely some of it could have been used to develop a simple app and add a few lines about it into the county’s public health campaigns to educate residents about COVID-19 and contact tracing efforts.
Jeansonne said there's still a chance that HCPH decides the exposure notification system is worth using in the future. “It’s not something that we ever excluded out,” he said. “I mean, all technological options are always on the table.”
The Houston Health Department didn’t explain why it hasn’t used the smartphone exposure notification system so far, but sounded a bit more open to the possibility of implementing the tech in the future according to a response sent to the Houston Press by a department spokesman.
“Our COVID-19 Response Team and IT division are currently doing an assessment on the benefits of this smartphone feature and how it would assist reaching the community more expediently,” said Porfirio Villareal, HHD’s public information officer, in a statement.
Villareal also hinted that HHD “should have more info in about a week or so about the possibility of using the feature.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has complained for months about how Abbott has taken away so many tools from local governments’ toolboxes that they could use to fight the spread of COVID-19. As the local pandemic grows worse with each passing day, time will tell if the city’s health department will finally make use of this anonymous exposure notification system, a tool that’s sat unused for months on end.
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