Oregon is one of just four states along or west of the Continental Divide that has yet to launch smartphone technology to aide in coronavirus contact tracing, leaving the state some two months behind schedule with no explanation from officials about the delay.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Oregon would test the Exposure Notifications Express technology last fall and state officials anticipated a wider rollout in January. The program allows users to opt-in to receive notice if they’ve spent time in close proximity to someone who later tests positive, such as when dining at a restaurant or spending time at a college party.
California launched its notification system Dec. 10, with “millions” now using it. Washington started even earlier, Nov. 30, and more than 1.8 million residents have opted in.
Oregon officials have given only vague statements and shifting timelines. A spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) in December said the agency was “currently working towards a January 2021 launch.” In early January officials said they were “assessing the results” of a pilot project at Oregon State University and would likely have an update by midmonth.
This week the health authority said those results are still being reviewed — and neither the agency nor Oregon State University responded to public records requests for documentation about the results or recommendations.
“OHA is still assessing the results of a now-completed Oregon State University pilot of the application to determine a date for rolling it out, but as mentioned previously, we are looking at spring for go-live,” Tim Heider, a spokesperson for the health authority, said in an email.
The notification system is a complementary tool to traditional contact tracing, in which public health officials interview someone who has been infected, collect the names of people who’ve been in close contact with that person, and then contact those people to tell them about exposure.
The smartphone system allows people who opt-in to use their cellphones to anonymously ping nearby cellphones, with the data kept confidential. If someone later tests positive, they receive a code from local health officials that they can punch into their phone. That triggers a process for sending out notifications to people who were in close contact with the infected person — without disclosing anyone’s personal information.
While officials in many states have lauded the technology’s potential to help slow coronavirus spread, it’s unclear how successful those programs have been.
Washington officials say they believe the exposure app is a useful tool, though it’s hard to know for sure. “The way WA Notify works is that no news is good news,” Teresa McCallion, a state health spokesperson, said in an email.
State officials said they weren’t able to provide detailed information on how many of their 1.8 million users have received a notification, saying there are multiple ways to be notified. The main source is through contact tracers, who ask residents if they use the app.
The University of Washington is studying the nascent state program and expects to release a report this month.
“We are adding approximately 3,000 new users every week,” McCallion said. “That kind of response exceeds our wildest expectations.”
King County estimated roughly 20% of contact tracing interviewees indicated they had WA Notify on their phone, local officials said.
Since December, the system has sent codes to 2,140 app users with infections so they could choose to trigger notifications for people who they came in close contact with.
“The effect of WA Notify on curbing transmission is being reviewed at the state level,” a county spokesperson said.
A United Kingdom study released last month determined more than 1.7 million smartphone users in England and Wales were told to isolate via an exposure notification app in the span of a few months. The study estimated more than 600,000 COVID-19 cases were prevented since the app launched in September.
“Isolating and knowing when you have been at risk of catching coronavirus is essential to stopping the spread of this virus, and the app is the quickest way to notify you if you are at risk,” Matt Hancock, the Health and Social Care Secretary, said in a statement last month.
Oregon’s information gap remains as cases this month plunged statewide to levels below last summer’s peak. But the technology could seemingly come in handy, as the governor has authorized indoor dining in 31 of 36 counties, including the entire metro area, and pledged to keep it that way at least until March 26.
According to state figures, just 50% of cases as of this week were traced back to a known source. Multnomah County falls far short of that mark, with just 41% of the county’s rapidly declining cases traced back to a specific source, far below the state’s stated goal of 70%.
Contact tracers in the tri-county area were overwhelmed this winter amid surging cases and it’s not clear what role, if any, their challenges have played in the delay. In December, state health officials said they were coordinating with county health offices on the app rollout but offered no details.
In late November, tri-county health officials were so overwhelmed that they urged coronavirus-positive residents to call close contacts and their employer and not wait for a contact tracer to reach out — suggesting new duties tied to a notification system weren’t feasible.
Beyond Washington and California, Hawaii, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada have enabled statewide notification systems. Arizona launched notification systems on some college campuses and New Mexico has a small-scale option in Santa Fe.
Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Montana don’t have notification systems enabled.
Colorado said it now has about 1.8 million users, with the technology so widely adopted because it is free, anonymous and easy to use on Android and Apple devices. It also comes in multiple languages.
A state spokesperson said the notification system “has been a useful tool in helping slow disease transmission.”