Contact tracing apps now cover nearly half of America. It’s not too late to use one.on December 14, 2020 at 10:07 pm

Can these apps help? Early in the pandemic, apps that warn about potential covid-19 exposures were promoted as a way to contain transmission, and countries like Singapore and Australia launched their services in the spring (though early adopters had problems too). But without a coordinated national effort in the US, states created a patchwork of systems that launched at staggered times and didn’t necessarily work across local borders. The first wave of US apps launched in August, months after those in other parts of the world, and in some areas they are arriving once widespread community transmission has already taken place. In California–the most populous state in the US–cases are surging, for example, and most people are under a stay-at-home order.

At this point in the pandemic, experts say it’s too late for these apps to dramatically lower transmission on their own. But the software is still useful for keeping you personally safe and aware of when you should get tested. As vaccinations begin and cases go down again, experts say they’ll be even more important.

“On an individual level, in fact, it’s more important now than it was three months ago, because there’s a lot more virus circulating in the community than there was three months ago,” said Rajeev Venkayya, who helped write the US’s first national strategy on pandemic preparedness in 2005.

Julie Samuels led the task force that developed New York state’s app. She puts it this way: “In American society, people are really looking for a silver bullet–for the one thing that we can do to stop covid. The way to think about the app is that it’s one more layer of protection. If it keeps even one more person from getting covid, isn’t that worth it?”

–Additional reporting by Lindsay Muscato

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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