Lessons From a Virus Tracing Dud

One state learned the hard way that technology won’t get us out of this pandemic. But it can help.

By Shira Ovide

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In the coronavirus panic in the spring, Utah hired a small tech company to create an app to trace state residents who were infected with the virus and help notify their contacts about possible exposure.

It didn’t go well.

Only about 200 people used the virus-alert app, Healthy Together, for its main intended purpose. Utah then shut down the key feature entirely. Critics of Healthy Together said that state officials spent too much on rushed and unproven technology.

This feels like a familiar tale of failures by government officials and botched pandemic technology. It is, but the story didn’t end there.

The app company, called Twenty, and Utah public health officials focused the app on less ambitious but potentially more useful purposes, including relaying coronavirus test results and digital symptom checks at schools and workplaces. It’s too soon to call Healthy Together a success or a failure, but the app now has a manageable purpose.

The saga of Healthy Together shows both what can go wrong with virus-fighting technologies and how digital helpers — if we establish trust and don’t overstate their capabilities — have a role to play in the human-led fight against the virus.

Let me state this plainly: Many virus-tracing technologies, like the first version of Healthy Together, have been a mess.

In Utah, state officials told me that many people were reluctant to share their location information via an app with the public health department so it could try to figure out who they might have come into contact with. The state didn’t do much to convince people that the app might be helpful.

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