New software can anonymously notify people of COVID-19 exposure; Kansas might not have the infrastructure to use it

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An Apple iPhone user updates their phone to the latest operating system in this stock photo from September 2020.

This past week, Apple and Google launched similar versions of a new function built into phone software that allows public health agencies to anonymously inform people if they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The two tech giants developed the technology earlier this year, but it wasn’t available in phone updates at first. Instead, it was up to health agencies to create apps that used the technology, which people would have to voluntarily download — something that many public health departments weren’t equipped to deal with in the early days of the pandemic.

Wednesday’s update was meant to change that and simplify the process for local health departments. According to Apple’s description of the service, once a positive COVID-19 test is confirmed, the local department could text a verification code to the patient using a private server, and the built-in software in the patient’s phone would do the rest of the work in anonymously telling everyone they had been in close contact with — who also had the notification software installed — that they were near someone with a lab-confirmed positive test.

More states seem to have jumped on board in recent days with using the new software as additional reinforcements for community health notification and contact tracing — two key tenets of managing an infectious disease, experts say — but Kansas simply might not have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of the software.

Ashley Jones-Weisner, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told the Journal-World that since the software uses Bluetooth — and not GPS tracking — to anonymously remember where Apple and Android users were, its use in Kansas likely wouldn’t violate a June law mandating that contact tracing for COVID-19 be voluntary.

But KDHE, at least for now, isn’t in a place to utilize the software on a statewide level. It’s not that the agency doesn’t support the idea, Jones-Weisner said, it’s just not something the department could handle with current budgeting and staffing restrictions.

“We’re supportive of the concept, but it’s not anything we can take on,” she said. “It’s more of a notification … so it’ll tell you if you get exposed, but all of the contact tracing and other things still need to happen.”

George Diepenbrock, communications director for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, echoed KDHE’s sentiments and said on Friday that county officials were still looking into the feasibility of using the software.

Both KDHE and Douglas County have worked to develop contact tracing organizations and seek to utilize the services as efficiently and effectively as possible, with the caveat that the voluntary nature of contact tracing in Kansas can inhibit their abilities.

Kansas on Friday confirmed 1,415 new cases of COVID-19 since data was last released Wednesday, bringing the state’s cumulative total to 52,285 cases since the pandemic began in March. The state also confirmed 10 additional deaths attributed to the respiratory virus, which has now claimed the lives of 596 Kansans.

The 1,415 cases were out of 10,523 total tests conducted since Wednesday’s data release, meaning that the most recent group of Kansans tested returned with positive results at a rate of 13.4%.


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