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Back to Abnormal: ‘How We Feel’ App and State’s New Contact-Tracing System

April 29, 2020

Once the economy reopens, the best way to track the spread of COVID-19 also invites privacy fears. The human appendage known as the smartphone is best equipped to provide the information, voluntarily or involuntarily, that scientists need.

Connecticut has chosen a voluntarily method with an app, its creators say, that minimizes privacy concerns. The How We Feel app, available for both Apple and Android phones, does not require logging in and does not share your name, email address or other personal details. It was developed by health experts at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an information-gatherer that asks residents to take 30 seconds to report, anonymously, possible COVID-19 symptoms.

At a larger scale, the self-reported information can assist health officials identify outbreaks early and also gauge the effectiveness of social distancing.

Google, meanwhile, is using information that’s not self-reported in compiling the much broader COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which relies on location data the tech giant uses to track for, among other things, targeting ads and product development. (Read more about a Mobility Report for Connecticut here.)

Connecticut announced April 28 a computerized system called ContaCT that will trace the contacts of people with COVID-19. The system, developed with Microsoft, will be supplemented by 300 workers from local health departments and up to 500 more volunteers. Some patients will fill out computerized questionnaires and others will be interviewed by trackers.

Gov. Ned Lamont said COVID-19 patients will be asked to cooperate with the program.

“We’re trying to encourage them, if they care about their friends and people they’ve been in contact with,” he said, “on a voluntary basis to let us know who those people might be. Nothing is mandatory, but of course the more people who participate, the more effective it is.”

Earlier this month, Apple and Google also announced they would build a contact-tracing system together that would track COVID-9 spread through Bluetooth Low Energy Technology that would feed data to health organizations while also preserving user privacy. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that, unlike GPS, does not track location.

If you use a health app to report symptoms, the system will also document anyone else who came near you, assuming that person had a device with Bluetooth activated.

Not feeling well? Call your healthcare provider for guidance and try to avoid going directly to an emergency department or urgent care center, as this could increase the chances of the disease spreading.

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