Despite promise, few in U.S. adopting COVID-19 exposure apps
RALEIGH, N.C. — Six months ago, Apple and Google introduced a new smartphone tool designed to notify people who might have been exposed to the coronavirus, without disclosing any personal information. But for the most part, Americans haven't been all that interested.
New York is one of fewer than 20 U.S. states and territories that have made such technology widely available. And according to a data analysis by The Associated Press, the vast majority of Americans in such locations haven't activated the tool.
Data from the states, Guam and the District of Columbia shows that 8.1 million people had utilized the technology. That's about one in 14 of the 110 million residents in those regions.
In theory, such apps could bolster one of the most difficult tasks in pandemic control: Tracing the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus in order to test and isolate them if necessary. In practice, however, widespread COVID-19 misinformation, the complexity of the technology, overwhelmed health workers, and a general lack of awareness have all presented obstacles, experts and users say.
"There’s a lot of things working against it," said Jessica Vitak, an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. "Unfortunately, in the U.S., COVID has been politicized far more than in any other country. I think that’s affecting people’s willingness to use tools to track it."
Charlotte, North Carolina, lawyer Evan Metaxatos was thrilled to learn in November about his state’s tracking app, called SlowCOVIDNC. He immediately downloaded it and got his parents and pregnant wife to follow suit.
But they're still outliers in the state, which launched the app in September with little fanfare. Of roughly 10.5 million state residents, only 482,003 had installed it through the end of November.
"It won’t work great until everyone’s using it, but it’s better than nothing," Metaxatos said.
New York launched its app on Oct. 1. It recently surpassed 1 million downloads, which amounts to about 5% of the population. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have seen less use, with a 4% download rate.
Apple and Google co-created the primary technology behind such apps, which use Bluetooth wireless signals to anonymously detect when two phones have spent time in close proximity. If an app user tests positive for the virus, that person’s phone can trigger a notification to other people they've spent time near — without revealing names, locations, or any other identifying information.
In states including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C., iPhone users don't even have to download an app. In fact, Apple prompts users via pop-ups to activate the notification system by adjusting their phone settings.
In these states, adoption rates are notably higher. But even in the most successful state, Connecticut, only about a fifth of all residents have opted into this tracking.
Security experts praise the Apple-Google system for protecting users’ anonymity, but it’s been a tough sell for many people. American users say partisanship, privacy concerns and stigma surrounding COVID-19 have kept participation low. A lack of state and federal efforts to boost awareness hasn't helped.
Neither have technological and bureaucratic issues.
Tim Brookins, CEO of app developer ProudCrowd, said 91 of North Dakota's 14,000 active users had their "Notify Others" button enabled after the state confirmed them as positive. Of the 91 users, only 29 pushed the button, which prompted 50 notifications.
Still, many users say they’ll keep the app in hopes others will see its potential benefits.
"You can say that about just about anything — that not enough people are doing this or that, but everybody that does something is helping," said David Waechter, a general contractor from Lenoir, North Carolina. "I think that the United States could use a good strong dose of E pluribus unum and stop thinking about self and start thinking about our countrymen."