Teton County officials explore contact tracing app

JACKSON — Teton County officials are looking for innovative ways to help trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19.

At a special meeting Wednesday morning, the Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding to negotiate a contract for the SafePaths cellphone app that can track users’ movements and alert them if they came into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.

The technology has been used in areas such as Summit County, Utah, to give public health officials a leg up.

“It’s really a voluntary tool that we can use as a community to help us do better contact tracing,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond told the board.

Software engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the app, which tracks users through their daily routines. If they are infected with the coronavirus and choose to share that information with their health department, the app sends a record of their movements to officials.

For people who aren’t coronavirus-positive, it will alert them if they come into contact with an infected person.

“It’s only close contacts,” Pond told the board. “If you pass someone in the pasta aisle at the grocery store, you won’t get [an alert], but if you had a lunch meeting at Starbucks with them you’ll get one.”

Besides alerting a person if they come into contact with the virus, the app can help them remember everywhere they went in the two weeks before they were diagnosed.

Contact tracing investigations involve interviews with sick patients to determine where they went and who they might have interacted with.

Many people may have trouble remembering every place they went in a two-week period, especially after social distancing orders are lifted and normal life resumes.

Should the county decide to go forward with the app, Teton County’s Health Department would keep data on people for only 30 days before deleting it from its server.

“We’d only be using it for the purposes of figuring out who the contacts are or jogging their memory,” Pond said.

Commissioners expressed concerns about privacy since the app would catalog all location data for a person.

Teton County Chief Deputy Attorney Keith Gingery told the board that the app wouldn’t be any different than using one like Apple Maps or Google Maps, both of which also catalog location data.

Pond told the board that the data wouldn’t be provided to the company, only to the county Health Department. She also said users could elect to remove locations like their home from their data.

Given that any contract with the nonprofit company would still need approval, the board unanimously signed off on the memorandum to start negotiating.

The county staff report indicates that the app would be free to users and to government officials for the first year.

According to SafePaths.MIT.edu, the application’s development team is comprised of epidemiologists, engineers, data scientists, digital privacy evangelists, professors and researchers from institutions including Harvard, the Mayo Clinic and MIT.

Read more at CovidSafePaths.org.