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Oct. 25, 2020

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Your phone could determine if you’ve been exposed to coronavirus. Oregon’s ready to embrace the tech

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The Oregon Health Authority is embracing contact tracing technology from Apple and Google that will allow Oregonians to use their cell phones to find out if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus.

Oregon will launch a pilot project this fall with a goal of about 30,000 participants, likely involving college students who are tech savvy and in close contact with others.

If state officials determine the technology is effective, they could make it widely available for Oregonians as soon as December or early 2021. Officials are cautiously optimistic about the project and say if several hundred thousand Oregonians use it, the technology could help slow spread of the virus in a meaningful way.

But state leaders remain guarded in their enthusiasm, recognizing some Oregonians may be unlikely to participate over privacy concerns and acknowledging equity challenges over who may access the technology. An unrelated symptom-monitoring project touted as a “game changer” by Gov. Kate Brown got shelved last month for failing to ensure enough participation among people of color.

“Knowledge is power when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19, and this pilot project will help people make informed decisions to keep themselves healthy, while still protecting individual privacy,” Brown said in a statement this week announcing the new technology effort.

“COVID-19 knows no state borders, and my goal is to make sure, if more widely implemented, this exposure notification technology is made available to those communities that have been disproportionately impacted by this disease — Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander and Tribal communities, as well as those living in the rural parts of our states.”

Late on Wednesday, health officials announced Oregon would join California, Washington, Colorado and Nevada in embracing the technology as part of a months-long pact between western states. California is rolling out the system, called Exposure Notification Express, at the University of California San Francisco and the University of California San Diego.

Oregon officials would not say where the technology will be available under the pilot, noting details are still being finalized. But the Oregon Health Authority is in talks with a university or universities about promoting the system for students, suggesting it could be available in Eugene at the University of Oregon, Corvallis for Oregon State University or in Portland at Portland State University.

The digital contact tracing system will be voluntary and completely anonymous, said Dr. Timothy Menza, a senior health adviser for the Oregon Health Authority.

It works by using Bluetooth signals from cell phones to record anonymized identifiers for cell phones that are in close proximity. The technology is able to determine roughly how close and how long the phones are near one another, with the federal government considering close contact as within six feet for at least 15 minutes.

That anonymized data would stay on an individual’s phone unless the person later tests positive for COVID-19, Menza said. At that point, the infected person would receive a personal identification number from the state or county health department after the COVID-19 diagnosis had been confirmed.

The person could then voluntarily enter the PIN into their cell phone, which would begin the process of uploading the anonymized Bluetooth data to a national server, Menza said. Other participants’ phones would regularly scan the national database to see if they’ve been in close contact with a confirmed coronavirus case – and if there’s a match the person would receive a notice on the phone about exposure and suggesting testing.

State and local health departments would not receive notice about exposures, Menza said. But people who are infected, or people who seek testing after receiving a notice, could voluntarily disclose that they are using the technology.

So-called proximity tracing applications do not take the place of traditional contact tracing by public health officials that involves detailed case investigations to determine the names of people who might have been exposed to a person with a confirmed infection.

But the technology does allow for more thorough tracing efforts, allowing notification among people whose identities might not be known to an infected person – such as someone who rode the same bus, ate at the same restaurant or attended the same party.

Proximity technology is controversial, particularly among some Americans who are unwilling to share personal data for privacy reasons and skeptical of the big tech companies offering the service. But it’s been embraced in some places, including Scotland, where a new app was reportedly downloaded 600,000 times.

Menza said proximity tracing apps have the potential to make a big difference if widely adopted. He pointed to research by the University of Oxford, which estimates that cases and hospitalizations could decline if just 15% of the population uses the technology.

Modeled for the state of Washington, that adoption level suggested a 15% decline in infections and 11% reduction in deaths.

“In that sense,” Menza said, “it seems pretty powerful.”

But that would require participation of more than 600,000 Oregonians, essentially the entire population of Portland.

“We’ll have to put in the work to make that happen,” Menza said.

Menza acknowledged potential challenges, not the least of which will be participation. Officials plan to roll out the technology slowly to ensure it works well and to determine if there are any glitches. They also plan to learn from pilot efforts in other participating states.

“What we need to do, and do well, is communicate clearly about what this app can and cannot do, and all the privacy protections that are part of it, and make the technology accessible to everyone,” he said.

State leaders had been internally discussing the potential to use exposure notification technology for several months but decided to work with Apple and Google this month, said Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Oregon’s governor. States must opt into the program for the technology to be available to residents.

The tracing software is not yet accessible to Oregonians. It will be available for Apple users in iPhone settings while others will need to download the technology through Google Play, Menza said.

Oregon officials plan to do the soft launch and limit participation until making a decision to move forward more broadly.

Menza said officials expect to receive aggregate data from tech companies about how many people use the technology, which they’ll compare to how many people voluntarily disclose participation during coronavirus testing.

“I’m optimistic,” he said, “that this might do us some good here.”

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