As many states continue to reopen businesses and permit more gatherings, public health officials are looking to contact tracing as a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19.  In contact tracing, public health staff work with patients who have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection to help them recall everyone with whom they had close contact during the time frame while they may have been infectious.  Staff members then warn those individuals of their potential exposure and provide information so they can understand their risk and take steps to limit the potential for further spread.  To protect patient privacy, contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed; the identity of the patient is not disclosed.

According to the CDC, digital contact-tracing tools can add value to traditional contact tracing by improving the efficiency and accuracy of data management and automating tasks, reducing the burden on public health staff by allowing electronic self-reporting by patients and contacts, and using location data, such as Bluetooth or GPS, to identify community contacts otherwise unknown to the case to review possible exposure.  Users of such reporting systems elect to share data and are alerted if they have been close to a COVID-19 patient.

With electronic data sharing and collection come concerns about consumers’ privacy.  A bipartisan coalition of 39 state Attorneys General recently signed off on a letter to Google and Apple, expressing “strong concerns” regarding the proliferation of contact-tracing apps that may not sufficiently protect consumers’ privacy.  The Attorneys General welcomed the efforts of Google and Apple to jointly develop application programming interfaced (APIs) for use in building decentralized exposure notification and contact-tracing apps, and which APIs will only be made available to public health authorities and contingent on the inclusion of features to protect consumer privacy.  The Attorneys General instead expressed particular concern about purportedly “free” COVID-19 tracing apps, already available on Google Play and the App Store, that utilize GPS tracking and which are not affiliated with any public health agency or legitimate research institution.