New Jersey will use contact tracing software developed by an Irish company and deployed in that country and others — as well as in Delaware and Pennsylvania — to bolster the work of its human corps in tracking and containing the spread of the coronavirus.
The state Department of Health said last week it is now testing a mobile app among 130 individuals, including state workers and people associated with three New Jersey colleges. The pilot program was slated to conclude last week. Officials said it will be introduced statewide after NearForm, the company that developed the app, makes tweaks as needed.
“This testing period is vital to improve the user experience and to resolve any technical issues that arise,” DOH Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Wednesday. “It has been receiving good reviews from testers, 4.6 out of 5 stars, and the issues raised by those who found problems are being addressed.”
Known as “exposure notification” software, the app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users when they are within 6 feet of another person with a Bluetooth device for 10 minutes, according to DOH. When someone tests positive for COVID-19, they can enter a code that tells the app to notify others who come into range that they may have been exposed to the virus; it also tells them what to do next, helps them track symptoms and connects them with state data on the disease.
“You may not even know that you’ve been exposed, but the app will tell you,” Persichilli said. “We recognize that protecting individuals’ privacy is key and the app does not use location data or collect personal information.”
Privacy is just one of the issues likely to trigger concerns among the public, according to Joel Caplan, director of the Rutgers Center on Public Security. People may worry whether and where the contact data is collected — something state officials suggest it will not do — and the liability they may face if they are found to have infected others, he said.
“Part of the big problem with these (contact tracing apps) is buy-in,” said Caplan, who worked with colleagues at Rutgers to develop a tracing app called Flatten — now available for free — that is designed to help frontline workers identify physical locations that are vectors for transmission, instead of focusing on individual contacts. “These (apps) only work if everyone uses the same one,” he added.
No great success with such apps in US
The fragmented nature of the response to the pandemic in America has made the use of apps like these more challenging, Wired magazine reported earlier this month. Apple and Google teamed up to develop the basic technology, which was released in April for others to build upon. But with multiple government agencies involved and people moving across state borders, efforts to launch coordinated contact tracing apps have not been very successful in this country, it noted.
That said, some states have deployed mobile tracing systems. Pennsylvania announced the statewide launch of the NearForm technology last week, after its Legislature held hearings on the program in August, according to news reports. Delaware rolled out its own program in mid-September.
While New Jersey has not revealed its timeline for widespread use of the app, officials hope the technology will help public health officials in their ongoing quest to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, which is accelerating in a half-dozen counties in central and South Jersey, state figures show. While the caseload is far less than was seen in the state at the peak of the outbreak here in April, more than 202,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of last week, including at least 14,300 who have died.
“Folks, we’re not out of the woods yet,” Gov. Phil Murphy noted Friday.
New Jersey has worked for months to beef up its contact tracing workforce and support the core group of 800 professionals employed by county and local health departments, who have been on the job since March tracking down individuals who test positive, advising them on their care, and coaxing from them the names and telephone numbers for other people they might have exposed. The DOH has hired a Massachusetts-based firm to assist with this effort and contracted with Rutgers University’s School of Public Health to conduct training for the roughly 1,000 additional tracers who have been hired since the summer.
The DOH declined to say what the app will cost but did note that federal funding would cover the bill.
Even with extra staff — and a continued push to ensure that tracers reflect the diversity of the communities they are serving — public health officials have been somewhat frustrated by the public’s tepid participation. Tracers have been able to reach fewer than two-thirds of the infected individuals they set out to contact, according to state data, and more than half of those they do reach have refused to say who they may have exposed.
While Persichilli said Friday that some aspects of this outreach response have become more successful, tracers are still unable to reach all of those they should. She reminded the public the pandemic threat remains and closed her remarks as she always does: “Stay safe and remember for each of us, for all of us, please take the call.”