Utah’s multi-million dollar contact tracing app still can’t track person-to-person contacts

coronavirus smartphone

It’s been more than a month since Utah officials rolled out the “Healthy Together” app, which was supposed to assist in tracking the movements of people infected with the coronavirus and who they might have come in contact with. Even though the state has spent more than $2 million on the app so far, it still lacks the technology needed to perform the promised robust contact tracing.

“Once you have this app, it tracks where you go,” said Gov. Gary Herbert at an April 22 press conference to unveil the beta version of Healthy Together. “If someone has Covid-19, it can go back and see who you’ve bumped into.”

The first part of that sentence is true, as users can let the app access their location history. That will allow public health officials to identify places an infected person has visited. But, the app does not yet produce data allowing them to see who the infected may have come in contact with and how long that contact lasted. The app is designed to assist human contact tracing, not replace it. But, it’s clear Healthy Together is only providing a rudimentary amount of useable data for contact tracers.

Contact tracing is crucial to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. If public health officials can determine where an infected person has been and who they came in contact with, they can get ahead of the virus before it spreads to more people by informing them of possible exposure. Right now, Utah’s app can only tell researchers where and when someone has been, but not who might have been exposed to the virus. 

A spokesperson for Twenty said the app “augments traditional contact tracing” by allowing public health workers to identify “possible transmission zones” by giving human contact tracers a starting point to identify when and where an infected person was at any given point in time. But, the app does not identify who else was there, or if those people were exposed. 

State officials admit the app is not yet performing the functions the governor claimed it would when it was rolled out in April. 

“We have not yet started contact tracing through the Healthy Together app, but anticipate we will be by the end of the month,” said Colby Oliverson with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. 

Instead, it appears Utah shelled out nearly $2 million for an app that offers a health assessment for users and refers them to a testing site if needed, but not much else.

The state paid Twenty $1.75 million for the initial development of the application, with an additional $1 million for future upgrades. The state is also paying Twenty a $300,000 monthly maintenance fee for the first 1 million users. All told, the app could cost Utah more than $6 million in the first year and another $3.6 million annually after that.

The app is nowhere near close to reaching 1 million users. According to Twenty, 65,000 people have downloaded the app as of June 8. Those users have participated in 365,000 health assessments, and 11,000 have been advised to get a test. So far, the app has cost Utah a little more than $31 per user.

Twenty says users can allow contact tracers to access the last two weeks of their location history and Bluetooth data, but that merely provides a history of where a certain person was with accuracy between 6 and 10 feet. The app does not yet identify device-to-device contact, which limits how much useable data is available to health officials. 

Buzzfeed reported that Twenty had agreed to build a contact tracing app for the state and a tracking portal for state officials to monitor the data. Twenty says they have made good on the portal part of the contract.

“For the initial beta rollout of the app, Utah focused on features that would support the first two phases of their overarching ‘Assess, Test, Trace’ response, so key components, including Spanish language and accessibility functionality, as well as the ability to opt-in for test results, and threat level ratings were prioritized,” said Twenty spokesperson Mackenzie Findeisen.

“Our team remains committed to delivering a solution that meets the evolving needs of the State of Utah to aid their efforts to fight the pandemic,” she added. 

As UtahPolicy.com first reported, Utah was approached by another company offering an app, for free, that would give health officials data about person-to-person contact. The Distancing app utilizes Bluetooth technology to alert users who have the app installed on their phones when they get within 6 feet of each other. It also can keep track of device-to-device contacts using that same technology.

Twenty and Utah health officials are quick to point out the Healthy Together app performs symptom tracking, which allows users to take a daily symptom assessment and directs them to get tested for Covid-19 if needed. That functionality is not a part of the distancing app.

In May, Apple and Google announced they were partnering on a Covid-19 exposure notification system, building a programming framework that would work on both platforms and allow public health departments to create their own contact tracing apps. However, Healthy Together is not compatible with the Apple and Google technology, and exists outside of that technological ecosystem.

“We built the app before the Apple/Google protocol was announced,” said Findeisen. 

Ultimately, the success of digital contact tracing will rely on Americans downloading the apps on their phone. One study suggests for digital tracing to be effective, 60% of the population would have to opt-in.