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Contact Tracing Apps Not Used Much in United States

North Carolina' s cell phone app contact tracing SlowCOVIDNC is shown on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. An analysis shows that few Americans are utilizing contact tracing technology launched in a host of U.S. states and territories. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Contact Tracing Apps Not Used Much in United States
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Six months ago, Apple and Google released a new tool for smartphone users. The program, or app, informs users of their possible exposure to someone infected with COVID-19.

However, an Associated Press examination shows that few people in the United States are using the app. The smartphone program is not widely available in most U.S. states and territories.

Information from 16 states, Guam and the District of Columbia shows that 8.1 million people had used the technology as of late November. Around 110 million people live in those areas.

Apps and the pandemic

Computer apps could help public health workers with contact tracing, a difficult job in pandemic control. Contact tracers search for individuals who may have come in contact with an infected person.

The contact tracing tool is free and can be found in Apple’s app store and the Google Play store for Android devices. Some state health-department websites also offer the program for downloading.

Experts and users say there are several reasons behind the low level of use in the U.S.

“There’s a lot of things working against it,” said Jessica Vitak, a 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,” she said.

Politicize is a term that means to make something a political issue.

Apple and Google created the main technology behind such contact tracing apps. These apps use Bluetooth wireless signals to anonymously detect when two phones have spent time in a close area. If an app user tests positive for the virus, that person’s phone can alert other people that they have spent time near. The apps do not give names, locations, or any other identifying information.

Covid notification apps for North Carolina, SlowCOVIDNC and Virginia, COVIDWISE are shown on a smart phone Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Covid notification apps for North Carolina, SlowCOVIDNC and Virginia, COVIDWISE are shown on a smart phone Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In states such as Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, iPhone users do not have to download an app. Apple asks users to start the system by changing their phone settings. In these states, app usage levels are higher. But even in the most successful state, Connecticut, only about a fifth of people have agreed to this tracking.

International views on tracing apps

Tracing apps are more commonly used in some other countries.

Irish app developer NearForm says more than 25 percent of Ireland’s population uses its COVID-19 app.

In Ireland, “all sides of the political divide came together with a consistent message on this is what we need to do,” said Larry Breen, NearForm’s chief commercial officer.

In other places in Europe, app use has been mixed. Germany and Britain have usage levels close to Ireland’s. In Finland, the number is about 45 percent, according to data from the MIT Technology Review.

In France, however, less than four percent of the population is using the official COVID app. That program runs a data collection system that is less sensitive to privacy concerns than the Apple-Google system.

I'm John Russell.

The Associated Press reported this story. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

exposure – n. the fact or condition of being subject to some effect or influence

consistent – adj. always acting or behaving in the same way

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