Council endorses voluntary contact tracing apps

  • Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder

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A nonbinding resolution urging the mayor to support a voluntary contact tracing app cleared the County Council by an 8-1 vote Wednesday after it was changed to allow more than one specific vendor.

Resolution 716 was amended to urge the mayor to “immediately support the release of the Sustain Hawaii Perseus ID mobile application as well as all other apps offering similar services or functions available for free and voluntary public use.”


Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who sponsored the resolution, said Maui County passed a similar resolution last week. Location apps are already being used on the island by the University of Hawaii and some employers, he added.

“The (state) Department of Health has struggled so far,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “Right now we’re stuck in … analysis paralysis. This is one measure of many that will help keep our citizens safe.”

The app under debate 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 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.

Most council members wanted to see the project expand to the Big Island.

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter worked with local community-based health care providers, known as “FQHCs” for Federally Qualified Health Centers, to secure their endorsements of the contact tracing app. Bay Clinic and the Hamakua Health Center have signed on, Kanealii-Kleinfelder said.

“You kicked us in the butt to get us going, because no one else was,” Poindexter told Kanealii-Kleinfelder. “You brought this to the forefront; you kicked us in the butt and now we’re moving forward.”

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards had voted against the resolution in committee.

Richards maintained his “no” vote.

“My concern revolves around the fact this is a beta product and hasn’t been tested. … I agree we need to embrace technology, but it’s not a proven technology,” Richards said. “My concern is it will give a false sense of security.”

Chung and Kierkiewicz still had reservations, but voted in favor after the measure was amended to allow other vendors.

“I’m not really enamored of it in total,” Chung said, “but I guess if you peel away all the layers, the message is we should support digital contact tracing technology.”

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