Using Cell Phones for Contact Tracing: Partnering with Google, Apple and CDC Foundation, Q&A with Task Force Public Health Informatics Expert

Vivian Singletary, JM, MBA, serves as Director of The Task Force for Global Health’s Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII), which is leading our work on digital contact tracing tools for the coronavirus pandemic.

Tell us about the partnership with the CDC Foundation to convene public health and technology organizations on digital contact tracing tools.

Rapid contact tracing and notification of people exposed to infected persons is critically important to stop further spread of the disease. Several digital tools have been developed to support various parts of the contact tracing process, such as an exposure notification application program interface (API) – a cell phone application that can notify users if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 via text notifications – co-developed by Apple and Google. However, there has been no national-level opportunity for local and state health officials to jointly assess these digital tools and how they might best support contact tracing, so our partnership with the CDC Foundation seeks to create this opportunity by convening a series of virtual forums.

What are the goals of these forums?

The aim is to provide guidance to state and local public health officials to assist their understanding of the marketplace of digital tools in support of contact tracing and to provide guidance to technology companies to ensure that the technology meets the functional and privacy needs and standards required by state and local public health officials for contact tracing. As one of our first tasks, the group will consider the technology being developed by Google and Apple to support the development of cell phone notifications.

With technologies like these, many worry about privacy implications. How do we ensure that this type of contact tracing is done ethically and does not infringe on privacy rights?

Privacy is an important issue, and as part of this forum, we will explore those concerns as they relate to tools such as the Google/Apple API for contact tracing. Those discussions will help inform functional requirements that technology companies need to consider as they develop digital contact tracing tools to ensure they meet the needs of state and public health departments. We would also make sure to effectively communicate how the solutions being developed address those privacy concerns as well.

Are tools like the Google/Apple API the only way we can do effective contact tracing?

The Google/Apple API is an exposure notification tool, which is just one aspect of contact tracing. The technology can be used to identify individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and alert those who may have been exposed as a result of any interaction, which can potentially help speed up and enhance contact tracing and slow the spread of disease. However, it does not replace the important role that public health practitioners play in obtaining details from a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, as well as the details associated with their contacts and addressing the concerns and questions of people affected. With or without digital contact tracing tools, a public health workforce will still be essential to filling this role.

Header photo caption: Field epidemiologists conduct contact tracing in Uganda during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Aggrey Byaruhanga.

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