ST. GEORGE — The state of Utah is releasing a free mobile app Wednesday designed to help track symptoms and those with the coronavirus as the state moves toward reopening parts of the economy.
The “Healthy Together” app, announced by Gov. Gary Herbert, is being released immediately and is designed to allow the tracking of those with the virus or its symptoms allowing for a quicker public health response to an outbreak.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the first positive COVID-19 test was announced on March 21, Southern Utah has gone two straight days without a new coronavirus case, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.
Herbert, during the daily state coronavirus press conference, said while he understands some may have privacy concerns, he said the state is being transparent in how the data is being used, no one will be forced to give their information and added no data is being saved beyond 30 days.
“We can never please everybody. That’s why its on a volunteer basis. We’re open with the data so you will know where its going,” Herbert said. “If I was exposed and didn’t know it and they were able to communicate that, it’s a help.”
Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff for the governor, told St. George News the app will be a key part of the state’s strategy in the stabilization and recovery phase of the state’s “Utah Leads Together 2.0” plan introduced last Friday.
The concept is that health officials will have a better idea of where the virus is propagating at a given time so more focused action in certain areas can take place, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all, close everything in the state approach.
“We won’t have the advantage of a vaccine. This will be our tool for this,” Edwards said. “The idea is this would put us on a place with (South) Korea. These are basic tracing efforts that have proven effective.”
“If the virus breaks out again, we don’t have to have everyone run and stay inside. We can say the outbreak was, say, at the college. This allows us to target and contain and hopefully avoid the process of closing down the state,” he added.
The application will allow people to voluntarily opt-in to share their location and health data. It will also let users know if they’ve crossed paths or had contact with someone with the virus.
It is being created by social networking app Twenty, which has offices in Salt Lake City. Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Jared Allgood, when asked about concerns some may have about how the data would be used, said people need to consider their part to play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a Utahan and a husband and father, the things I worry about more than anything are the physical health of my family. We’re in an unprecedented time. We’ve never been in a pandemic,” Allgood said. “Being able to get clear information will help us understand . That’s the motivation for me personality and it has proactive deletion built in.”
Allgood said the application only feeds data to the Utah Department of Health and any data on the app is automatically deleted after 30 days. It does not utilize the phone’s camera but does utilize GPS and Bluetooth. It also utilizes a user’s contacts, but Allgood said that is to allow users to easily invite friends to use the app.
Herbert and other state officials said the app would make it easier to allow areas with fewer cases to go back to more businesses being open and less restrictive measures. For example, Southern Utah, which has seen a fraction of the cases places like Salt Lake County has, could be under fewer stay home directives while they remain in other areas.
Though that comes down to how many participate.
“Part of our job and why this is rolling as a beta is to show the value of participating this fully,” Allgood said. “It’s the state’s job is to connect the dots and show the value.”
The application will integrate the “Crush the Curve” survey at testutah.com, which health officials say has allowed them to have a better handle on the extent of the spread of the virus in the state and the right places to set up testing. More than 50,000 Utahans have entered their health information in the survey according to the Utah Department of Health.
During the pandemic, the state has had some technological success, like the coronavirus.utah.gov website. However, there have been other attempts that have had to be withdrawn quickly, like the use of a virtual checkpoint that sent texts to those entering the state to fill out a COVID-19 declaration. Those texts lasted just three days after many far from the Utah-Arizona border reported receiving the texts without traveling.
Last weekend, a separate technical hiccup caused the temporary halting of mobile Amber Alert messages.
Edwards claims the issues that have befallen other recent technological launches in the state should be avoided this time as it’s using proven technology that is different than the wireless alert system.
“This is such a different kind of technology than what we were testing with the wireless alerts,” said Edwards, who added the Healthy Together app will work better with older mobile devices than the wireless alerts did. “If you had the latest and greatest phone, that would have worked out really well, but most people don’t have the latest greatest phones. This uses the most contemporary technology. And the state was very quick to respond to the concern with the wireless alert. If we see something wrong with this, we will quickly adapt.”
Allgood said the app is still considered to be in a beta phase, meaning it is open to quick refinement. He said the core technology uses his company’s Twenty application while the Bluetooth teaching utilizes the Mesh application, which Allgood said have been both used by millions already.
No new Southern Utah cases in two days
For the first time since the first positive test in Southern Utah on March 21, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported a second-straight day with no new cases of infection in the five-county area.
The department said there is now only one local person being hospitalized in the area for the virus. Of the 70 reported coronavirus cases in Southern Utah, 56 people have fully recovered.
David Heaton, spokesperson for the department, said having two straight days without new cases is encouraging, but it’s too early to indicate a trend. However, it does help make the case that at least Southern Utah may be ready to move into a less-restrictive phase of social distancing.
“The fact we’re still seeing positive cases means we’re still seeing community spread, but it is low enough that we’re OK with gradually opening things up,” Heaton said. “We’ll see on or before May 1.”
The state took another measure in the last 24 hours, allowing clinics and hospitals to resume some elective procedures.
Utah is also moving closer to the benchmark set in March of when the state could move toward opening up certain businesses of having 1.1-or-less people infected for each person who has the virus. The Utah Department of Health said as of Wednesday, that number stands at 1.2.
That said, Herbert said recent protests asking the state to fully reopen comes from a false sense of security with no basis in science.
“This does not mean the pandemic is over. This is just a step on the road to recovery. It’s not fear. It’s not politics. We’ve being driven by data,” said Herbert, who repeated an earlier assertion that he can’t please those that want everything opened up or those that feel he should be more forceful at ordering people to stay home.
“We haven’t shut down the economy. We’ve been accused of not doing enough. It’s easy to stand outside and criticize, but sometimes people don’t have the right information and data.”
COVID-19 information resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of April 22, 2020)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 70, including 1 death and 56 recoveries.
- Washington County: 48
- Iron County: 18
- Garfield County: 1
- Kane County: 3
- Beaver County: 0
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