At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Apple and Google developed and launched the ‘Exposure Notification’ app. As a joint venture, the app was designed as a digital solution to contain the virus transmission by quickly informing users if they had been exposed to a COVID-19 positive person.
Unlike the U.K and European countries, the U.S. was reluctant to adopt the Exposure Notification app, and Apple’s former Head of Health Strategic Initiatives, Myoung Cha believes that decision is one of the major reasons for the rise in cases of COVID-19 new variant, omicron.
The Exposure Notification app can be the U.S. government’s tool against all COVID-19 variants
Worried about the rise in the cases of COVID-19 omicron variant, Cha shared his unpleasant experience with the U.S.government and said that public health agencies did not understand how technology like the Exposure Notification (EN) can help them in the battle against the virus. He estimates that a uniform adoption of the EN tech would have been instrumental in containing the spread of the coronavirus.
As we worked on the effort, it became clear to me that public health agencies did not fully grasp the power of the technology as a way to massively augment more traditional NPIs.
Eventually, a patchwork of US states adopted the EN technology through their own apps or EN Express. Unlike most countries, we lacked a federal approach which could ensure a uniform message and rollout. This was probably the single biggest detriment to adoption in the US.
In his Twitter thread, he concluded that the way to defeat the tricky virus which relies on quick transmission is to adopt digital contact tracing technology. So that, exposed individuals can take precautionary measures like quarantine and testing before symptoms surface.
It is time to bring 21st century tools and technology to a 21st century virus. The vaccines are a piece of the puzzle, but we should be deploying every tool in our toolkit — N95 masks, boosters, rapid and ubiquitous testing, and yes, even EN.
The trifecta of mass rapid testing, EN, and oral therapies could be the killer combination against omicron and future variants. Anyone who gets an EN should get tested immediately, isolate/quarantine to break transmission, and get rapid a access to a therapy if positive.
Update, December 30: A new report from The Washington Post covers this topic in detail, with comments from Cha on where the U.S. went wrong in getting people to adopt the exposure notification app:
“The Biden administration, when they came into power, put almost all their chips into the vaccines as their silver bullet to beat the virus,” Cha said. “I think that was strategically the biggest mistake.”
Most states don’t use the exposure notification system at all, and where people have signed up for it, only a few people who test positive for the virus report it via the system. Most of the reporting is still being done manually to human workers, at a time where such systems are over-burdened.
On the other hand, states like Colorado that are using the system see around 12% of all cases logged via the exposure notification system. However, the issue might be that the exposure notification apps were launched without any large advertisement campaigns. The app has seen success as per studies from Oxford Univerisity and Google’s research team.
A February 2021 study from researchers at Oxford University said an exposure notification app for people in England and Wales had likely prevented 600,000 coronavirus cases. At that point, more than 56 percent of eligible people were using the app. Their research also showed a 2.3 percent reduction in cases for every 1 percent increase in the number of app users.
An earlier study, published in September 2020, by researchers from Oxford and Google’s internal research team, showed even usage rates of 15 percent could reduce the spread of the virus.
Google spokesperson Nicolas Lopez and Apple spokesperson Semonti Stephens provided a joint statement to The Washington Post:
“We built the Exposure Notifications System to help public health authorities during this historic pandemic in a privacy-preserving way. We’re proud to collaborate with public health authorities and provide a resource — which many millions of people around the world have used — that has helped protect public health,”
- Apple releases iOS 13.7 with new Exposure Notification Express which eliminates the need of an app
- COVID-19 Exposure Notifications – Story Behind Apple & Google’s Collaboration
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- How to turn off COVID-19 exposure tracking on iPhone