Limited and Open Government

Utah Fights COVID-19 with New Opt-in App

One silver lining about coronavirus is how strongly the private sector has stepped up to respond to the pandemic. From creating tests to drone delivery of medical supplies, to the truckers making sure store shelves stay stocked, coronavirus has often brought out the best in people trying to serve others to solve problems. 

On the other hand, there have been alarming responses around the world. For example, Poland is forcing its citizens to download an app and upload selfies of themselves under the threat of random police check ins. In the UK, some police are uploading footage captured by drones to their social media page to unapologetically socially shame people. Americans have been arrested for violating stay-at-home orders. People have also been forcibly removed from a public bus for simply not wearing a mask. 

While Utah has avoided the heavier infection rates of other states, and has not been subject to a statewide shutdown, it is crucial that we continue to take measures to try and promote the health and safety of Utahns and vulnerable portions of the population. Today, Governor Herbert announced a new initiative called Healthy Together, a partnership with a Utah company that has developed a track-and-trace app to inform people if they may have been exposed to COVID-19. This is a voluntary, opt-in application that would utilize your cell phone’s location relative to the location of other people and notify you if you have been exposed, as well as provide helpful information on where to get tested. 

We support this initiative in large part because it is a voluntary application with strict privacy controls in place. The application places a lot of emphasis on privacy for the end-user, giving them control over deletion of their data and automatically deleting data older than 30 days old. Additionally, the company has restricted how the government can access the data, as it is strictly related to COVID-19 and only provided when someone has tested positive and the public health official needs to contact that person, and those who came into contact with them, to inform them of next steps. 

One of the early lessons we have hopefully learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that one-size-fits-all policy is typically inappropriate.The pandemic has impacted each state differently, and the problems each state faces is unique. More specifically, different parts of each state are differently impacted, along with different industries and families; unique situations call for narrowly tailored responses wherever possible. 

And because many medical professionals predict there will be another wave of the coronavirus that will happen in the fall season, the question becomes: how can we avoid statewide and countywide shut downs from happening in the future? How can we ensure that the sick and exposed are quarantined, but that the broader population is not unnecessarily shut down, and the economy hampered as a result?. One possible solution is having a critical mass of people voluntarily participating in the contract tracing that this Healthy Together app provides, in order to specifically identify spread of disease rather than presumptively banning large areas and populations just in case.. 

This model allows state officials to gain meaningful data in understanding where the virus may have spread, which can help shape their thinking for how to address future waves of COVID-19 as well as future pandemics. Secondly, it creates a more streamlined process for people to get access to testing who may require it, which was an early problem. 

Finally, and most importantly, it allows the state to be more flexible in its policy to handle the virus. If state officials do not have adequate information to understand the virus as well as where it is spreading, they will default to broad approaches, restricting the liberty of people who are not sick or contagious. Healthy Together offers a pathway for the state to do narrowly targeted policy making on the most impacted groups—something we should all prefer over the status quo.

As we look to “re-open” Utah’s economy and avoid future waves of COVID-19, it may be initiatives such as Healthy Together that help us avoid reproducing the harms that have been self-inflicted in recent weeks..