A local team has developed a mobile app that would allow public health officials to track exposure to the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The app uses technology to provide essential data that’s critical to fighting the epidemic, developers said. The team, which includes Joe Hamilton, publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, hopes to win backing from county and state health officials for the app, which they could deploy immediately.
“Here in St. Pete we have the ability to lead the county and the state to put the first app on the market,” said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, in describing the project to the St. Petersburg City Council last week.
There’s been a heavy focus on “contact tracing,” or identifying persons who have come in contact with an infected individual, and collecting information about that contact. That kind of identification is key to ramping up testing to slow the spread of the disease, health officials have said. It’s typically done through phone calls and interviews, and is not a technology-heavy process.
Steinocher prefers the term “exposure notification” and he said that’s what the BlueTrace app would provide, using an application programming interface developed by Apple and Google that’s just been publicly released.
An individual would have to download the BlueTrace app on their mobile phone and opt in with a two-step verification process. Individual who have tested Covid positive can share that status via BlueTrace. As app users move around the city, anonymous identifier beacons are shared with other nearby phones.
The contact history, including distance and time, is saved on the phone for 14 days.. The contact history is provided to the county health department, sorted by exposure risk, so the health department can direct testing and notification to mitigate the outbreak.
“Effective contact tracing is critical to fighting any epidemic. The job this time around is monumental, and in the U.S. it is currently done manually, by interviewing people on the phone,” said Plamen Stoyanov, BlueTrace system architect and a veteran of leading local technology firms. “Using technology to automate and speed this process up makes perfect sense, especially given the ubiquity of mobile devices. It can help slow the spread of the virus, give people the confidence to go out and restart the economy, and save governments money.”
Similar technology is already being pioneered in multiple countries from Iceland to Australia to Singapore, Stoyanov said.
“Exposure notification apps are an essential tool in our fight against Covid-19, and we need to deploy the technology in the U.S. so we can raise awareness and drive adoption,” he said.
Time and speed to market is of the essence, said Hamilton, who is administrator of the BlueTrace team. “We have to get it active sooner rather than later for it to be effective.”
The Chamber is working with the BlueTrace team on the initiative. About $200,000 in funding is needed, Steinocher said.
That would cover the costs of software and licensing, database creation and administration, tech support, and marketing to drive user adoption, Hamilton said.