As Colorado considers how best to reopen safely — communities throughout the state are now learning the latest pandemic lingo — and that’s contact tracing. But the subject has farther reaching impact than simply knowing who has been near whom.
Contact tracing is a public health strategy used to combat infectious disease outbreaks. While contact tracing and coronavirus go hand in hand, the practice — which involves tracking down all contacts of an infected person to break the chain of transmission — goes back decades.
The strategy has been successfully used throughout history including to control outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus and sexually transmitted diseases.
However, unlike outbreaks in the past, the latest efforts to tackle contact tracing for COVID-19 are now being developed for smartphones through an app, leaving some community members concerned about potential invasions of privacy and government overreach.
“Early studies are showing that there’s a lot of asymptomatic carriers so they’re unknowingly spreading it regardless of if they felt sick,” explained Public Information Officer Andrew Sandstrom.
According to Sandstrom, county leaders in recent weeks have eyed potential development of a contact tracing app, available for free to download on any smartphone to be utilized in the Gunnison Valley.
Local leaders first surveyed residents in Gunnison County to gauge the level of interest in the app. More than one thousand responses were received valley-wide through an online survey, of which approximately 70 percent of respondents indicated they had little to no interest in participating, compared to 30 percent who said they would utilize the app.
“I think there was some confusion on the app generally,” said Sandstrom. “First and foremost the app would be completely voluntary.”
The second round of online surveys concerning the contact tracing app received 26 responses by comparison, of which there was a near 50-50 split with 54 percent of respondents in favor of the app and 46 percent against.
Still, Gunnison County resident Kirstie Pike expressed concern over what she sees as potential government overreach with the app.
While Pike acknowledged the value of contact tracing as a means to lessen the spread of disease, the most important aspect in considering the use of a smartphone app is the fact that the service remains voluntary.
“I would never personally utilize or perform any of those measures,” said Pike. “But if people wanted them that's their choice and they have to be made aware of where their information goes.”
So how exactly does the contact tracing app work?
According to Sandstrom, the free app functions by utilizing a user’s Bluetooth capabilities. Bluetooth is essentially a shortrange wireless interconnection that can be used with mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices.
If you’ve ever wirelessly connected music from your phone to your car or another speaker in your home, that’s Bluetooth making that connection.
The app does not track a user's location.
Unlike location services like Google Maps, which track a user’s whereabouts, Bluetooth does not require a pinpoint position.
“Bluetooth essentially communicates between devices that are in close proximity,” added Sandstrom.
So, if a person in the community downloads the contact tracing app, they will then receive a notification, or a ping that signals when and if you were in proximity to another person who has opted to use the app.
If at a point in time, one user contracted COVID-19, they could then go onto the app and log a positive test.
“All of my contacts within a certain period of time would then be notified that you may have been in contact with a positive case,” said Sandstrom, who stressed that on top of the tech being completely voluntary, the information is entirely anonymous.
Any user on the app who came into contact with the positive case will be notified, giving community members a head start to either isolate or pursue testing.
Despite precautions with privacy, Pete Hamilton, who has resided in Gunnison County on and off for the last decade, said he’s not comfortable with any app on a phone that has access to information regarding his personal health.
“It’s nobody’s business,” said Hamilton. “I hear about breeches of this or that, and I don’t want to be on the other side after it happens, that’s for sure.”
Hamilton also took issue with the methodology of contact tracing through an app.
“I don’t even have an iPhone,” said Hamilton. “So then what?”
Sandstrom too acknowledged that smart phones aren’t available to everyone in need, particularly the senior community who is among the highest risk with coronavirus.
“The more people that do it the better it works for contact tracing and containing the virus,” said Sandstrom.
Another way of determining COVID-19 transmission is through antibody tests which are now available at Gunnison Valley Hospital.
Antibody testing was made available last week with more than 300 community members taking advantage of the new services, costing $75.
Of those tests, 77 — or about 24 percent — came back positive for antibodies, while about 250 — about 76 percent — came back negative.
The Abbott SARS-CoV-2 IgG test is designed to detect antibodies in a blood sample that would indicate a person may have a current or prior COVID-19 infection.
Gunnison Valley Health’s Laboratory Director Tina Wilson in a press release last week said the test is designed to detect antibodies in a blood sample that would indicate a person may have a current or prior COVID-19 infection.
“An antibody is a protein that the body produces in the late stages of infection and may remain for up to months and possibly years after a person has recovered,” said Wilson.
Wilson further noted detecting the IgG antibodies will help determine if a person was previously infected with the virus and will enable GVH to gather more epidemiological data for the hospital and community.
Following the roll-out of antibody testing, Pike was among some of the first to take advantage of the voluntary testing. The results are sent to Public Health.
“I did it,” said Pike. “At the end of the day, every citizen has the right to protect their privacy and their health information.”
(Kate Gienapp can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)