When Nathan Watson logged onto a coronavirus contact tracing feature on his cellphone that was announced a few weeks ago by Apple, about the last thing the Tukwila accountant expected was what he saw.
“Exposure notifications have not been turned on for your region by your public health authority,” his phone told him.
The tool is a privacy-protected way to have your phone possibly notify you if you’ve been near someone who reports they’ve tested positive for coronavirus — even in anonymous situations, such as at the grocery store. It’s potentially a major leap in the detective game of contact tracing that’s needed to quell the virus so people can eventually get back to work and school.
Canada launched one of these in July and nearly 3 million have signed up. Twelve U.S. states have joined in, including Alabama, Arizona, New York and Wyoming. Our state has yet to decide, though — which is also what they said at a state legislative hearing on the topic back in July.
“There have been no decisions made about adoption in the state of Washington,” a health department official told state senators.
To Watson, who said he just wanted to “fractionally help in any way I can,” it all seems emblematic of a troubling phase we find ourselves in with the coronavirus crisis. Which is that it no longer feels like a crisis. We’re going along, doing whatever we’ve been doing, with no apparent sense of urgency or plan for getting out.
“It’s month, what, six, or seven?” he said. “Here we have a private party solution that could help, but the government either hasn’t done it, or can’t do it, or won’t. It just really feels like we’re stuck.”
By almost any measure, Washington has done exceptionally well so far with the health side of the virus. After starting as the worst, we now rank as the 11th best state out of 50 in the per capita infection rate, 47% below the U.S. average. Though we were the first state to record official COVID-19 deaths back in February, the total death rate here now is less than half the national rate, as entire regions suffered outbreaks that we were spared.
This week King County reported that its estimated reproductive value for the virus — a measure of disease spread — has dropped to 0.6, the lowest of the entire pandemic. Any value below 1 means the virus is dwindling.
All of that is great news, but it comes with a caveat. Serology studies over the summer by the CDC suggested only about 2 to 4% of Washingtonians have been infected by the virus so far. If that’s correct, we’re essentially still a virgin population, with an exponential outbreak à la New York, Italy or Arizona still possible.
It means that old-school testing and contact tracing — painstakingly tracking and isolating each reported infection — remains one of the more potent tools for corralling virus spread.
With that in mind, on Sept. 2, researchers at Oxford University released a study of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties which found that even if only 15% of the population used a digital phone exposure tracking app like the one put out by Apple, it could lead to double-digit percentage reductions in both new infections and deaths.
“We found that a digital exposure notification app can meaningfully reduce infections, deaths, and hospitalizations in these Washington state counties at all levels of app uptake, even if only a small fraction of the eligible population participates,” the researchers concluded.
They’re not saying it’s a tech quick-fix to the pandemic. Other countries have reported big glitches with their apps, and getting people to use them correctly has been challenging. Because the system works by having your phone monitor your interactions with other phones via Bluetooth as you move throughout your day, there is major uneasiness about being overly tracked by either corporations or the state.
“We’re entering a new era” in public health, said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, at the July legislative hearing, “where concerns about Big Tech and Big Government have converged.”
Surely it’s worth a try, though, no? As it is, we’re stuck in a sort of spiral. The pandemic’s not over, which makes it tough to reopen fully. But neither is it severe enough — here anyway — to prompt large-scale societal shake-ups or new initiatives.
All the while the national government is floundering. The guidance that asymptomatic people don’t need testing anymore was a sign of surrender (if followed, it renders contact tracing virtually impossible). When we have nearly 200,000 dead yet the president is still mocking mask-wearing, maybe it’s a stretch to imagine Americans would volunteer en masse for digital contact tracing anyway.
“I feel really disappointed, as an American,” Watson told me. “I bought into the idea of American exceptionalism — when the pandemic hit, I thought, ‘Hey we’re Americans, we’ll rally and we’ll figure it out.’ People made huge sacrifices, but the leadership isn’t doing much of anything anymore. It feels like decay.”
Yes it does. It turns out going into lockdown was the easier part. Now some renewed urgency and focus is desperately needed on how we’re going to find our way back out.