ORLANDO, Fla. — At least 20 states have or are developing apps that help users track the spread of the coronavirus and warn them if they’ve been near someone who has tested positive for highly contagious COVID-19.
Florida is not one of them and likely won’t be.
As the Google-Apple technology takes hold across the U.S., several Florida mayors urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to create the state’s own app to shore up a state tracing program Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber described as “still failing to do its job.”
“Please consider directing your Department of Health to allow local governments the option to utilize the app,” Gelber wrote in a letter to DeSantis. The app “may prove effective in some circumstances, but without your approval, we will never know.”
Gelber’s plea came as the Florida death toll crossed 18,000 and COVID-19 cases closed in on a million.
DeSantis, a Republican and key ally of President Donald Trump, has been mostly hostile to any new action against coronavirus, not only refusing to order a statewide mask mandate but waiving penalties for local governments’ previous mask orders and preventing them from creating new ones.
DeSantis has also brought in controversial White House adviser Scott Atlas, who has supported ideas close to herd immunity, which some experts suggest could lead to millions of deaths nationwide.
A DeSantis spokesman did not return requests for comment. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, declined to comment on the apps Tuesday.
But the list of states that use the apps, as well as Guam and Washington, D.C., doesn’t break down along red state-blue state lines.
According to the Washington Post, which is keeping tabs on the trend, the majority are from Democratic-run states including Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington also are creating apps.
Yet, states with Republican governors also use them, including Alabama, Maryland, North Dakota and Wyoming. Arizona is also in the process of creating its app.
The apps allow users to opt-in by providing personal information in exchange for pop-up notifications warning them if one of their contacts reports a positive COVID test.
They only work as well as the number of people who use them, however. So far in Colorado, according to news station CBS Denver, about a million people have signed up for the app. But that’s out of a population of more than 5 million.
In Virginia, the Washington Post reported last week that only 488 people in three months have used the app to send alerts about a positive test to others.
“What happens here is we really face a chicken-and-egg problem,” said computer scientist Stefano Tessaro, who helped develop Washington’s app, in a University of Washington lecture last month. “Accuracy of the system ends up increasing trust, but it is trust that increases adoption, which in turn increases accuracy.”
Some of the wariness in signing up for the app involves privacy concerns, especially giving either the government or big tech companies personal information.
Colorado’s app, CO Exposure Notifications, stresses that users’ privacy is protected.
“You have full control to opt in to receive exposure notifications and can turn it off at any time,” it states.
Colorado adds that the service doesn’t track user locations, doesn’t store personal information, and “your identity will never be revealed to anyone.”
But the biggest hurdle could be anti-mask, COVID-skeptical people.
“Would you use an app that’s designed to tell you if you have been exposed to the China Virus?” conservative talk show host Lars Larson asked on Twitter on Tuesday. The poll showed 87% of respondents would not.
But Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, whose state is the latest to launch its own tracking app, COVIDaware MN, urged people in his state to sign up, according to the Star Tribune.
“COVIDaware MN gives our state a powerful and anonymous new tool to alert others we’ve had close contact with — even people we don’t know — and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Walz said.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)