Is Michigan’s COVID-19 contact tracing app working? 

click to enlarge The MI COVID Alert app is supposed to warn you if you've been near an infected person. My phone has been suspiciously silent. - LEE DEVITO
  • Lee DeVito
  • The MI COVID Alert app is supposed to warn you if you've been near an infected person. My phone has been suspiciously silent.

About a year ago, Michigan got a new weapon in its battle against COVID-19: a contact tracing app.

Deployed by governments around the world to attempt to curb the spread of the virus, such apps help traditional contact tracers — health workers who call up people who have been in close contact with an infected person to warn them of possible exposure — by using mobile phone data, allowing for people who the person does not know to be notified as well. In the U.S., tech titans Apple and Google, whose operating systems are used by nearly all of the smartphones in the country, joined forces to co-develop a framework for apps that could be adopted by local health authorities. Dubbed Exposure Notification, it uses wireless Bluetooth technology to communicate with nearby phones. Users who test positive for COVID-19 are supposed to upload a PIN to the app, which then notifies anyone else with the app who has been within six feet of them for at least 15 minutes in the past 10 days. Out of concerns for privacy, it does this anonymously, so the infected person’s identity is not revealed.

It seemed like it could be a game-changer. I downloaded Michigan’s version of the app, MI COVID Alert, as soon as it was released. But nearly a year later, the app has never once notified me of potential exposure.

At this point, it’s highly unlikely that I haven’t been within six feet of someone who has had COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community spread of COVID-19 in much of the United States is “high,” meaning the virus is pretty much everywhere, including Oakland and Wayne Counties, where I spend most of my time. I’ve gone to grocery stores, concerts at large theaters, and even a large festival in Illinois. (While MI COVID Alert will work with other states’ apps that use the Apple and Google framework, Illinois’s health department did not opt-in. In the U.S., the health authorities of fewer than half of states and territories have used the app.)

Part of the reason my phone has been suspiciously silent could be because Michigan’s contact tracing app has still not yet been downloaded by many people. According to Bob Wheaton, a public information officer at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), 728,629 Michigan residents have downloaded the app so far, or just 7.2% of the state’s population of 10 million or so. The state spent $500,000 to develop the app, he says.

A study by England’s University of Oxford released in April 2020 offered hope that widespread use of contact tracing apps, along with other safety measures, could end COVID-19. “Our models show we can stop the epidemic if approximately 60% of the population use the app,” said senior author Christophe Fraser, “and even with lower numbers of app users, we still estimate a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.” Another report published in Nature Portfolio that looked at the apps used in England and Wales found that for every 1% increase in app users, the number of cases could be reduced between 0.8% and 2.3%.

In an email, Wheaton says that 5,376 people used MI COVID Alert to report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, and the app sent 18,657 notifications to potential close contacts — a small fraction of the 1,253,227 COVID-19 cases reported in Michigan, which have resulted in at least 23,342 deaths.

But Kirsten Simmons, a communications officer with MDHHS, says every notification matters.

“For the person who is getting that notification, that can make a world of difference,” Simmons tells Metro Times. “Even if it’s one person who gets that notification, that could mean other people spared from COVID-19 or lives saved.”

Of course, not everyone has a smartphone, including young people, old people, and people who can’t afford them. Simmons says that MI COVID Alert’s usage rate is higher if you limit it to the number of residents who likely own a smartphone, placing it somewhere between 10-20% of users.

A pilot program for the app launched in Ingham County in October 2020 had a higher usage rate, with 46,704 people downloading the app in the first few weeks of the program, or approximately 23% of the county’s residents between the ages of 18 and 64. The pilot was pushed by a campaign that included media interviews, social media posts, and broadcast commercials, as well as help from Michigan State University.

But the other important thing about MI COVID Alert is that regardless of how many times it’s downloaded, it requires user participation to work.

“I think one common misconception is that MI COVID Alert creates and sends out those alerts automatically,” Simmons says. “It does rely on users and participation.”

There are other aspects of the app that are less than ideal. WDET reported that some users said the app wouldn’t let them self-report their positive COVID-19 tests due to a glitch. Plus, users have to get a PIN number from the state’s health department confirming the positive test, which can take days to receive if the test needs to be sent to a testing facility. It can also be difficult for people with COVID-19 to do something as simple as make a phone call to the health department to get the PIN, since common symptoms include fatigue and “brain fog.”

The technology behind the app is somewhat shaky, too. Last year, a study on Google’s system published by PLOS ONE found that metal walls, flooring, and ceilings distorted Bluetooth signal strength, rendering possible close contacts inaccurate.

Still, Simmons says the app is just another tool to help stop the spread of the virus.

“It has always been intended to be used in addition to contact tracing, in addition to wearing a mask and social distancing, or physical distancing,” she says. “And until we had a vaccine, those were really our best tools available.”

Simmons says that though she is fully vaccinated, she still has the app on her phone, especially considering the possibility, although low, of “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people.

“I still want to know, and I think it’s still important for people to know if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive,” she says.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine that as this pandemic drags on — some experts have advised thinking about it as something that might take at least five years, placing us closer to its beginning of it than its end, while others have posited that COVID-19 could be with us for longer — more people could become inclined to download the app. Other scientists have said the technology could easily be changed to adapt to other viruses, with other pandemics likely in an increasingly interconnected world.

“Potentially, if there’s another health threat or another virus like this that comes up, it’s always possible,” Simmons says. “Of course, technology is always changing, so there could be some other options too.”

Simmons encourages everyone to download the app if they haven’t already. Beyond the notification feature, it also displays data from Michigan’s COVID-19 dashboard, including the state’s vaccination rate, ICU bed occupancy in hospitals, and other trends.

“It’s still a useful tool, in addition to the contact tracing feature in the app that will tell people if they’ve been in close contact with someone, it just has good information about COVID-19 in Michigan, and tips to continue to stay safe for people both if they haven’t been vaccinated yet and even if they have been fully vaccinated,” she says.

You can download the app for free at michigan.gov.

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