SALT LAKE CITY — A piece of technology designed to better help contact tracing in Utah and curb coronavirus infections has failed to attract enough users or provide the desired data, making it all but useless for health departments across the state.
The Healthy Together app was first announced on April 22.
“This is going to help us identify and protect others,” said Gov. Gary Herbert when the app was introduced.
But after the state committed over $6 million towards the tech, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn announced a major feature was being turned off Thursday.
“We’ve learned over the course of the last three months that location tracking isn’t popular and as a result, it hasn’t really been helpful to our contact tracing efforts,” said Dunn. “So, for that reason, we are going to be turning off the GPS and Bluetooth location tracking. Those components of the app will no longer be there.”
Healthy Together app
The app was the result of a no-bid contract, which cost the state $2.5 million upfront, followed by $300,000 per month for a year, terminating in April 2021. The contract was paid for with CARES Act funds.
Dunn said the Healthy Together app has been downloaded by 58,000 Utah residents, users have completed more than 540,000 symptom checks and more than 18,000 people have been referred for COVID-19 testing.
Created by Twenty Inc., a New York-based company, Healthy Together claimed to offer tech that similar free apps did not. Specifically, GPS tracking allowed users to share their location history with contact tracers in the event they tested positive for coronavirus.
Other apps, including those developed by Apple and Google, utilize only Bluetooth technology.
The state emphasized that difference on the state’s coronavirus website.
“Bluetooth helps us understand person-to-person transmission, while location/GPS data helps us understand transmission zones.”
In addition to location sharing, the app was supposed to notify users if they came in contact with a COVID-19-positive person. It also allows users to take symptom assessments, find testing locations, and receive their test results on the app.
Has It Been Worth The Cost?
“(The app) has not worked as well as we would have hoped, for the contact tracing aspect,” said Tom Hudachko, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health.
He said a big reason was the public’s unwillingness to utilize the geolocation tracking element, which was an optional feature for users.
“Our hope with the app was that as a contact tracer sat down with a positive case, they would be able to look at the location data and location history in the app, and be able to use that to guide the conversation and have that conversation be more thorough in terms of being able to track where somebody has been. And quicker,” said Hudachko. “You’ve got this list of places that you’ve been over the past several days as opposed to trying to just rely on your memory to determine where you’ve been.”
Now, citing the public’s wariness of the GPS tracking tech, Hudachko told KSL the state will “be turning off location tracking” on the Healthy Together app.
“There’s definitely been an uneasiness on the part of individuals to share their location history with this,” he said. “We feel like that is the primary reason why people have not engaged with the app.”
Hudachko said fewer than 200 people have shared their geolocation data with contact tracers after testing positive for COVID-19.
While the $6 million app will no longer be used for contact tracing, Dunn said it will not go away completely.
“It’s a great way for individuals to assess their symptoms, be connected to testing, receive their test results and also get information about what they should do next to protect themselves and their loved ones,” said Dunn. “We hope these changes to the app will encourage more Utah residents to download and use the app in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Costs of contact tracing
While the initial design of the Healthy Together app was to assist with contact tracing, the KSL Investigators learned local health departments in Utah have instead relied on tried-and-true contact tracing methods – specifically, people employed to interview those who test positive and then reach out to anyone they’ve been in contact with who may have been exposed.
It’s a job that has existed for decades, tracing other communicable disease outbreaks like sexually transmitted diseases.
KSL Investigators reached out to the health departments hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, including Salt Lake County, Utah County, Davis County, Summit County, Bear River and Weber-Morgan health departments. Of those, only Utah and Davis counties indicated they had used the app on some level.
Some health departments told KSL the app is not useful in their contact tracing efforts simply because there isn’t enough data, as not enough Utahns have downloaded and shared the geolocation information. Currently, only about 3% of the state’s population has downloaded the app.
“We haven’t really used it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s useful or not,” said Tair Kiphibane, infectious disease bureau manager for Salt Lake County Health Department.
She said since the state transitioned to the yellow risk category, the job of contact tracers has grown exponentially.
That’s because when most people were staying home in more restrictive risk levels, they were only encountering a few people. Now, tracers make 30-50 calls for each person who tests positive for coronavirus.
That’s stressing the system and leaving health departments across Utah scrambling to hire more tracers. In Salt Lake County alone, they have hired at least an additional 125 contact tracers to handle the pandemic.
All that costs money. So far, more than $57 million has been either budgeted or already spent on contact tracing statewide. Salt Lake County is the biggest spender, with $4 million overall, $500,000 of which covered just the most recent paychecks for their contact tracing staff.
What’s next for the Healthy Together app?
Dr. Suzanne Harrison, a member of the Utah House of Representatives, has questioned the Healthy Together contract since the beginning.
“When are we going to learn that we need to be listening to medical experts in order to best navigate this pandemic?” she asked.
Now that the app will no longer be utilized for contact tracing, she wonders about the money.
“I’m concerned that it was not an effective use of taxpayer dollars at this point,” she said. “If we’re not even using it for contact tracing, what was the purpose of this contract and this app?”
Hudachko said the app will continue to be used “as a tool for individuals to assess their symptoms, find testing and receive their test results” for the duration of the contract.
Harrison believes the $300,000 per month fee to maintain the app might be better spent elsewhere.
“I would love to see those taxpayer dollars redirected to things that we know will help Utah families and I think now is a good time to reassess.”