NY COVID-19 app captures less than 1% of positive cases

When the app was launched, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touted it as a technological game changer for contact tracing

Amanda Fries
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
ALBANY — More than 1.3 million New Yorkers have downloaded the state COVID Alert NY app to assist with contact tracing efforts, but the phone application launched in October accounts for less than 1 percent of the reported positive cases in the state.

The state Department of Health, which monitors the exposure notification tool, said more than 3,400 individuals reported a positive coronavirus test, prompting more than 2,000 exposure notifications among other app users and assisting contact tracers in their efforts.

"Like a ripple effect, upon receiving a notification, these hundreds of New Yorkers can quickly notify their own friends, family and neighbors of potential exposure, prompting a wider group of people to contact the health department, seek out a test, and quarantine in order to stop the spread of the virus," said Jonah Bruno, a health department spokesman.

The app was launched as COVID-19 cases climbed in New York and across the nation, marking the expected "second wave" of the virus that continued through and was further exacerbated by the holidays.

Over 1,000 New Yorkers per day started testing positive at the beginning of October and that climbed to over 2,000 by the end of the month. Daily positive cases peaked at nearly 20,000 on Jan. 14, but figures are now trending downward, according to state COVID-19 data.

When the app was launched, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touted it as a technological game changer for contact tracing, and by mid-October, New York boasted the app had been downloaded over 640,000 times. But state officials at the time declined to turn over more detailed aggregate data that would measure the app's impact, unlike surrounding states that readily provided that information.

Similar versions of the same app have also been rolled out in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. New Jersey began providing data on the app's use via the state's COVID-19 dashboard in November; Pennsylvania provides updates on the app's use in weekly news releases. It's unclear whether Delaware also makes their app's data publicly available; Capitol Insider was unable to reach Delaware health officials in time for publication.

New York's health department did not respond to a follow-up question asking why the agency does not make the data publicly available.

New Jersey appears to have had the most success with residents using the app consistently, with state health officials reporting on average about 203,000 check-ins daily. According to the latest figures available on that state's COVID-19 dashboard, just under 200,000 people checked into the app, with about 4,500 experiencing coronavirus symptoms the week of Jan. 30.

As of Friday, New Jersey had 567,000 downloads, which health department spokeswoman Nancy Kearney said represents about 10 percent of the population targeted for the app.

"The app, COVID Alert NJ, has been an additional critical tool to help bolster the state's contact tracing efforts, particularly for those who are hard to reach, like younger adults, or not inclined to answer the call from a tracer," Kearney said. "You may not always know who is around you so the app also helps to alert users of potential exposure from other app users they may have encountered in order to help stop the spread of transmission."

The app does not track your location or personal information, but does compile active users, the number who have uploaded positive test results and the number who have been alerted of close contact with infected individuals. It cost about $700,000 to develop, with financing in part from Bloomberg Philanthropies foundation and federal funds.

It also has interoperability with several states beyond the mid-Atlantic region, including California, Hawaii, North Dakota, Nevada and Minnesota; if someone travels from New York through Pennsylvania, they will be alerted if they have been exposed to the virus, or exposed others in that state.

Pennsylvania's app has been downloaded over 775,000 times, said Maggi Barton, a spokeswoman for the state's health department. She said they have made updates to the app to allow 13- through 17-year-old residents eligible to download the app with parental consent, along with adding languages.

Barton said 1,333 positive cases were reported through the app, triggering 645 exposure alerts to people who were in close contact with COVID-positive individuals. Of those who received alerts, 91 people called a contact tracer for further assistance, she said.

Barton and other officials stressed that the app supplements, but does not replace, traditional contact tracing methods.

"In many cases, positive COVID-19 individuals may not even know the people they were in close contact with (for example, if the contact happened on a bus or train, at a check-out line in a grocery store, a restaurant or some other public venue)," she said. "This technology can help support traditional contact tracing efforts by notifying more people who have been in close contact with a positive COVID-19 individual at a faster rate. The app supplements traditional contact tracing processes and helps stop the rapid spread of COVID-19."

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