Are enough people downloading NC’s COVID contact tracing app?

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Only about 35,000 people downloaded North Carolina’s COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone app over the past week, according to numbers provided to CBS 17 News on Thursday by a state Department of Health and Human Services official.

Spokeswoman Amy Adams Ellis said the app has been downloaded 85,000 times since it became available Sept. 22 — with 51,040 of those coming on the first day.

With the state relaxing some restrictions as it prepares to move into Phase Three of the reopening process Friday, that total translates to 0.48 percent of the state’s population of 10.5 million having downloaded the app.

But while an oft-misunderstood study from Oxford University concluded that the coronavirus epidemic could be stopped with an app adoption rate of 56 percent, one of the top technology officials at DHHS says that rate doesn’t have to be nearly that high for the app to work well.

“Really, for the app to be effective, you can look at a total population and … you need less than you think,” said Sam Gibbs, the agency’s deputy secretary for technology and operations.

“Where it’s very effective is if you can concentrate it in areas where you know people are gathering,” he said.

Once downloaded and turned on, the North Carolina contact tracing app — SlowCOVIDNC — uses a Bluetooth connection to anonymously connect with other smartphone users with the app. 

It relies upon the user to tell the app if he or she has tested positive for COVID-19, and notifies other users who have been in close contact for several minutes of the result — without linking it to names or locations. The more people using the app, the more effective it becomes.

On four occasions, the North Carolina app has notified other users of someone’s positive test, Adams Ellis said.

While that single number from the Oxford study grabbed headlines, another crucial piece of information is left out: The report’s senior author, Christophe Fraser of Oxford University, said that even lower numbers of app users would still lead to a drop in cases and deaths. He estimates one infection will be avoided for every 1-2 users.

North Carolina is one of 10 states with contact tracing apps based on software produced by Apple and Google — New York became the 10th on Thursday — with roughly 10 more states either developing apps or considering them.

Those tech giants gave their code away for free to the states to encourage the projects, Gibbs said. Virginia introduced its app in August, and Gibbs said North Carolina partnered with that state and customized its code. That allowed it to be developed in just six weeks, he said.

“Virginia has been a very good partner,” he said.

The states with apps have had different download totals so far.

— Virginia had 460,000 downloads after one month, as of Sept. 1, according to published reports. That works out to 5 percent of the state’s population of 8.5 million.

— Pennsylvania launched its app the same day North Carolina did, and it has had more than 180,000 downloads, a state spokeswoman said. That’s 1.4 percent of its population of 12.8 million.

— Alabama has had nearly 75,000 downloads since its app debuted Aug. 17, according to spokeswoman Ashley Foster of Bigcom.com, the marketing firm for that state’s app. That comes out to 1.5 percent of that state’s population of 4.9 million.

The key, Gibbs said, is who has downloaded the app, and where they’re located.

He said DHHS initially partnered with colleges and universities across the state “to bake the application into their student information and student communications” because those campuses have a higher population density than other more rural parts of North Carolina.

“If you get even a small number in those areas, you can help slow the spread,” he said.

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