Contact tracing app squeaks through: Council Public Safety Committee narrowly passes nonbinding resolution

  • Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder

  • Aaron Chung

A County Council panel Tuesday urged developers of a free, voluntary contact tracing app to talk directly with Mayor Harry Kim’s administration before the council takes a final vote on a resolution later this month.

Resolution 716, sponsored by Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, is nonbinding, urging Kim to allow a digital contact tracing app for Apple and Google to be used on the Big Island. The Council Public Safety Committee voted 5-3 to forward the resolution with a positive recommendation to the council for one more vote.

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Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards voted no. Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy voted yes with reservations and North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff was absent.

The app proposed in the resolution could work alongside an app eventually approved by the beleaguered Department of Health or any other app that may get approved by the county, they noted. The embattled department on Monday saw the announcement of the retirement of its director, and there have recently been shifts of top leaders there as coronavirus rages in the state.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter and South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David, all voting yes, agreed with Kanealii-Kleinfelder that the state Department of Health is taking too long to get an app up and running.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than getting caught up in politics when people are getting sick and people are dying,” Villegas said.

Poindexter agreed.

“We’re always the Johnny-come-lately when it comes to an emergency like this,” she said. “I’d say, let’s run with something. Let’s do it. … When are we just going to bite the bullet and do something? Something is better than nothing.”

Dissenters objected to a single vendor offering proposals to the county in the absence of input from the Health Department and other vendors that have similar projects.

“It’s easy to kind of throw stones at the Department of Health right now,” Chung said. “But at the same time, they are our go-to agency.”

The app was developed by Sustain Hawaii, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that works with health concerns in Native Hawaiian communities. Executive director Kevin Vaccarello told the council the app was created five months ago and is being beta tested in Waimanalo, a primarily Native Hawaiian community on Oahu.

The nonprofit’s efforts to work with the state department have not borne fruit, he said. Vaccarello said the nonprofit thus far has paid for the app itself, although it was hoping that it could get some money from federal coronavirus relief funds.

“We’ve been very actively promoting collaboration for five months and nothing has happened,” Vaccarello said. “We’re in a pandemic right now and we’ve lost five months. Lives are at stake; livelihoods are at stake.”

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Managing director Roy Takemoto, who listened to the two-hour presentation and debate, said “the main agency to talk with is the Department of Health,” but he seemed to be willing to talk further with the app developers.

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. Even those who don’t use the app would be able to see COVID-19 hotspots on a map that would be posted to the internet.

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