‘We just need more people to use it:’ Contact tracing app hindered by small numbers of downloads, cases logged

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Only about one in every thousand North Carolinians who have tested positive for COVID-19 during the past year has recorded that result in the state’s contact tracing app.

State Department of Health and Human Resources data show roughly 1 million new cases since Sept. 22, 2020, when the SlowCOVIDNC mobile app was launched.

Spokeswoman Bailey Pennington told CBS 17 News that 1,168 PINs have been submitted into the app across the state. People testing positive may obtain a PIN to anonymously submit the test result into the app.

Similarly low usage rates have been observed across the country — including at least one state that has discontinued its app — but Charles Carter, the DHHS Assistant Secretary for Technology Services, said the solution is simple.

“We just need more people to use it,” Carter said. “The technology is working. We’re definitely not going to turn it off.”

The app notifies a user if they have gotten too close for too long to someone who has submitted their positive test result. But the key is getting more people to not only download the app — but to actively record the results.

From Aug. 29 to Monday, NCDHHS recorded roughly 60,000 new cases. During that same time, the number of PINs submitted to the app statewide increased by just 18.

“If not a lot of people adopt it, it’s going to be harder to accomplish that mission,” Carter said.

DHHS says nearly 934,000 people have downloaded the app — or, about 9 percent of the state’s population of 10.4 million. Of the 26 states that introduced contact tracing apps, Maryland has the highest download rate at about 40 percent of its state population.

But in Arizona, just 1.3 percent of residents downloaded it, leading that state to close its program two months ago.

Why have the download numbers generally been low? It could be related to concerns about privacy, though leaders have consistently said the app does not track location or any other personally identifiable information and keeps its data anonymized.

Also, it stands to reason that people who download the app also tend to take other precautions such as wearing masks and keeping their distance — and, with those actions lowering their likelihood of catching COVID, they might not have any infections to log in the first place.

The number of downloads in North Carolina has picked up lately, increasing every month since May with more than 31,000 people downloading it in August as concerns about the delta variant caused the case counts to climb again.

“First, get vaccinated,” Carter said. “Secondly, download the app. And then thirdly, if you do test positive, make sure that you put that information in there.”

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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