COVID-19 exposure app launched in Arizona never reached full potential

Jul 30, 2021, 4:45 AM | Updated: Aug 3, 2021, 9:57 am
(University of Arizona Website Photo)...
(University of Arizona Website Photo)
(University of Arizona Website Photo)

PHOENIX — The Covid Watch Arizona app could’ve led to fewer COVID-19 cases across the state, but it never reached its full potential.

“We have worked with our partners as they’ve developed this contact tracing app,” Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services said.

“It’s really to notify other individuals if they’ve potentially been within a certain distance of a confirmed positive case.”

ADHS contracted WeHealth Solutions and paid the tech company $1.6 million to develop the app. It also helped get labs, such as Sonora Quest Laboratories, on board.

The labs create a verification code for people who test positive for COVID-19. Users can enter that code into the app, which then sends an alert to other app users who were near the infected person and may have been exposed.

The Covid Watch Arizona app went live statewide in January. It’s designed to be fully anonymous and users have to opt in.

The University of Arizona piloted the app late last year. The university estimated the app helped reduce COVID-19 transmission on its campus by 12%.

“It had the opportunity to be a useful tool, but it was never going to be a game changer the likes of which a statewide face covering mandate would’ve been,” Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said.

Humble explained the county health departments he spoke to told him they didn’t know about the app until it was well into development, and it wasn’t ready to be used statewide until around March.

That left county health officials with very little time to get input from their elected and appointed officials.

“This has big privacy concerns for elected officials,” Humble said. “They needed to have a level of confidence that if they were to roll this kind of an app out in their county, the data would be protected and that people’s privacy would be respected.”

He added the “ideal time” to roll out the app statewide would’ve been in the early fall of 2020, after the number of COVID-19 cases from the summer surge started to decrease and right before the winter surge.

Christ explained why her department hasn’t publicly promoted the app.

“We at the department have been focused on promoting vaccination, which is really what is going to get us out of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

The Covid Watch Arizona app is still in circulation and has 93,000 downloads to date. However, Sonora Quest, the state’s largest COVID-19 testing lab, is no longer participating. Labcorp is also no longer involved with the app.

“Sonora Quest is here to support ADHS’s initiatives which no longer include this app, and thus made the decision to discontinue our platform that offered the verification code to users,” Tom Leggett, director of business development for Sonora Quest, said in a statement to KTAR News 92.3 FM.

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COVID-19 exposure app launched in Arizona never reached full potential