Have You Heard About the COVID Tracking App?

Kim McKinney

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I went into Settings on my iPhone one day recently and noticed something new. Right under "Emergency SOS" (where you can set up your emergency contacts) I noticed something that said "Exposure Notifications”. It got my attention. I’d never seen it before, and I am the curious type. It was time to explore.

Back in the early days of the news on the Coronavirus, I was fascinated by the story of Patient 31 in South Korea. Remember her? She was the 61-year old woman who single-handedly was responsible for spreading the coronavirus to thousands across South Korea.

There were a lot of lessons to be learned from Patient 31, but she is a vivid example of how "freedom” can impact not just an individual but a whole country.

It’s unknown when and where Patient 31 picked up the coronavirus, but what is known is that she was in a minor traffic accident on February 6, 2020, and checked herself into the hospital. She attended church services in the area on February 9 and February 16. On February 15 she had a high fever and doctors at the hospital wanted to test her for the coronavirus. Instead, she met a friend for a buffet lunch at a hotel. She finally had a test at a clinic at another hospital on February 17. On February 18 she was officially diagnosed as being South Korea’s 31st case of the coronavirus.

The numbers fascinated me. By March 20, Reuters had her responsible for infecting 1,160 people. Of the 9,300 people who attended the two church services she attended, within days 1,200 of them had been diagnosed positive.

The South Korean health officials tracked her movements over prior days with cell phone tracking technology, which enabled them to know her movements and potential impact.

I had heard a few mentions of tracking the coronavirus in the United States but had never heard much of the tracking app. Investigating that option on my phone, though, made me find and download the app available for North Carolina.

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iPhone Image by Kim McKinney

I’m a private person in many ways. I do not typically enable location services on my phone and other devices unless I am using them. If someone without a need to know asks me where I’m going or where I’ve been, they may get a blank stare or an answer equivalent to "None of your business” if they persist. Family and friends rarely ever say "Call me when you get home" anymore when I leave them, after rounds of arguments due to my refusal to do it. There are several reasons for my position on this, one being that when I did it and didn't most forget about it and hadn’t worried one iota, but I also don’t like feeling as though I am being tracked or pressured. What if I decide to stop and have dinner with friends along the way and get home far later than anticipated?

But I didn’t hesitate to download SlowCOVIDNC at all. If I get the virus, I will load my results into the app so others can know if they have been exposed to me. I also want to know if I have been exposed. While I try to be careful in my contact with others, I am by no means perfect. There are times when I have been around people unmasked (typically outdoors or eating and drinking in bars or restaurants), and while I would say I am better than most I am not always completely cognizant or compliant.

As one of the caregivers for my 82-year old mother, I must be as vigilant as possible. Having other people around my mother, however, we also need to be aware if she is exposed. So far several family members have had the coronavirus, but timing was in our favor and we have managed to protect her.

Here’s how the app works.

  • You download the SlowCOVIDNC Exposure Notification app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. (If you are in another state or country check to see what is available for you.)
  • You enable Bluetooth and Exposure Notifications.
  • After you opt-in for notifications, an anonymous token is generated for your device. This token changes every 10-20 minutes and is never linked to your identity or location, protecting your privacy.
  • Through Bluetooth, your phone links with other phones around you that have the app installed, exchanging these anonymous tokens every few minutes.
  • The phones record how long they are near each other, with the Bluetooth strength estimating distance.
  • If you test positive for COVID-19, you can get a unique PIN to submit to the app
  • Info is downloaded from the server periodically from the devices of users who have anonymously reported a positive test. Your phone can then calculate risk and determine if you should receive an Exposure Notification.

I don’t want to be like Patient 31, infecting people all around me because I ignore the possibility that I have the disease. I have made a personal commitment to get tested at the first sign of symptoms or following a known exposure. (I'm a believer in statistics and know many who are not in the numbers.)

South Korea used this sort of technology to turn things around for their country. Many other countries around the world are using it, too, but I have talked to friends and family members and most were not aware the technology is available.

This is a major flaw in this technology in the United States. When you use something on an opt-in basis, and most of us don’t opt-in, the percentages necessary to contact enough people to reduce the virus probably won’t happen. There are always going to be concerns about privacy, which has been a major issue for the United States. Some countries, such as Israel, have decided that the risk to overall health supersedes the right of personal privacy and have made tracking mandatory.

I live in a relatively rural area and don’t regularly have a lot of people contact, so I don’t believe I have the capacity to be responsible for as many exposures as Patient 31. But how do I really know that? And while it may not be over a thousand, it could be a hundred.

It’s not just those you expose, but those exposed by the people you exposed, and so on. If we’re not paying attention, it can happen quickly and destructively. Another communication piece that impacted my behavior significantly at the first of the pandemic was a video Vox did on how the coronavirus spreads compared to other diseases, which illustrates this well.

Until we get more immunity against this virus, I will attempt to do my part to protect those around me. Seeing the grief of people I care about as they bury loved ones due to this disease, makes it a bit easier for me to turn on the app and let my token communicate with other tokens around me. I appreciate those around me who are doing the same. If only a few of us do it, the impact will probably be small.

Truthfully I have been a bit shocked by how many people have hidden that they have had the virus. I've found out months later that friends and family have had it and didn't tell anyone outside their immediate famiy. In most cases I was not around them before their diagnosis, but yet they could have forgotten who they had contact with. After all, even trying to maintain social distance, how many people are we within 6-10 feet during the course of a day? How often are we seeing people with their nose hanging out of their masks or no mask at all?

This app may be a way that people can keep their identities private but still let others know they may have exposed. It could mean the difference between exposed people disregarding symptoms for something such as an allergy or a cold, and going out in public around others without taking proper precautions.

Whether others in North Carolina or around the world are willing to use the available apps, I’m willing to give it a try anyway. The potential to make anyone more aware of exposure is a good reason to give up the small bit of privacy it may take away. I figure this may not be the last time we see something like this virus. Whatever we can learn will help us in the future. Why not give it a try?

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I love stories of people and places and enjoy telling these stories. I live in my hometown of Statesville, NC, in the Charlotte area, and love to show how lovely life is here. More is going on than may meet the eye. I also enjoy expanding throughout North Carolina to show the places and activities and people that make me believe life is fascinating and travel as much as I can, so write about that, too. I also have a passion for justice and a special interest in accessible healthcare, including treatment for drug and alcohol dependency. I am a woman of faith, joy, laughter, adventure, and live life to the full. Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kimmckinney719 or my blog KimberleyMcKinney.com or https://kimmckinney719.medium.com.

Statesville, NC
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