Contact tracing for the public: Voluntary contact tracing app would allow personal notification

  • Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder

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Would a voluntary, free app that lets people know they were within 10-12 feet of someone who later tests positive for coronavirus help stem the rising tide of infections?

Could crowd-sourcing — literally putting a tool into the hands of the public — be the solution that government alone can’t seem to reach?

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As COVID-19 cases surge on the Big Island, a County Council member thinks so. Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder is bringing forth a resolution Tuesday urging Mayor Harry Kim to allow a digital contact tracing app for Apple and Google to be used on the Big Island.

Resolution 716 comes as the island racked up scores of new COVID-19 cases in the past days, most in East Hawaii and some attributed to parties and a July 25 Keaukaha oceanfront memorial service that drew hundreds in violation of county social distancing and mask-wearing laws.

An intensive testing program is ongoing and a charter school, several restaurants, a county government office and a retail store closed after employees tested positive.

“We’re having an explosion of cases and we still have no contact tracing app for the state of Hawaii,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “It allows people to make their own decisions because the state has failed to follow through. We’re seeing a failure of the plan and leaders need to be proactive making sure that our community has the opportunity to keep themselves safe.”

The app uses GPS to create a digital location diary that never leaves your phone, until you allow it. This is data that will never be stored in a third party server, one of its developers said. Only if someone tests positive for COVID-19 will they be prompted to voluntarily release their anonymous location data.

Other parts of the app provide educational and scheduling reminders and can be expanded to include health records and physician videoconferencing with the user’s permission/consent.

The app was previously known as the “Safe Travels” app, but that name is being changed to avoid confusion after the state Department of Transportation named its unrelated app the same thing. The state DOT app is used to track and store information for travelers at airports.

Sustain Hawaii, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2003, is part of a coalition to develop a contact tracing app. The coalition was working with different individuals and groups who approached the state Department of Health about plans to create an app to facilitate contact tracing in conjunction with testing. The department subsequently decided on a different direction.

“We are still working on the app and could benefit from county or state officials providing us endorsements on their letterhead saying they support the app being publicly accessible so the community can have it as an optional set of tools to help safely reopen the economy,” Sustain Hawaii executive director Kevin Vaccarello said Saturday. “Similar letters of endorsement from insurers, schools and hospitals/clinics/community health centers would be wonderful. Without such endorsements Google and Apple won’t allow the app to be accessible to the community via the App Store or Google Play.”

Maui surgeon Dr. Stephanie Yan, a member of the coalition, said in an Aug. 9 email to state and county officials that she’d been working on a contact tracing app for Hawaii since March in conjunction with the Harvard/MIT group SafePaths.

“Contact tracing is a huge piece in the infrastructure to control this virus and to open up our economy for good without the intermittent shutdowns,” Yan said in the email. “It’s going to be whack-a-mole for two years, we need to arm ourselves with the fastest way to detect where the mole is in order to whack quickly AND never shutdown again.”

Yan said Friday that the Department of Health was interested in the diary portion of the app, but didn’t want the app to immediately notify other app users when one of their cohorts tested positive, even anonymously.

“We wanted DOH to take this on and be our partner,” Yan said. “They don’t want to do the immediate notification; they want to decide when to notify people.”

Attempts to reach the Department of Health on Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful. The department is currently employing a surge testing program in conjunction with labor-intensive manual contact tracing through victim interviews about whom they were in contact with.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder’s resolution is nonbinding, and it’s unclear whether Kim will agree to the plan. He said the COVID-19 surge in Hilo shows the importance of identifying cases early and isolating them before the infection spreads and an app could be “another tool.”

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“The only way it would work here would be totally voluntary by the people who are infected,” Kim said. “It counts on voluntary willingness; you’ve got to get people to understand the purpose of testing to help control the spread of this virus.”

Resolution 716 will be heard at 2 p.m. Tuesday by the council Public Safety Committee. Under new COVID-19 procedures, public testimony will not be taken in-person. Instead, the public may provide oral testimony via WebEx. To register for access to the meeting, email Jeanette Aiello at jeanette.aiello@hawaiicounty.gov or call 961-8255 no later than noon Monday.

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