MUSC, state health officials to release app to improve contact tracing to slow spread of COVID-19

Updated: May. 6, 2020 at 3:52 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina could soon have an app that alerts you if you’ve been near someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

It's part of the contact tracing efforts among the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Medical University of South Carolina.

Contact tracing is when you identify people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or may have it and then find out who they have been in contact with to notify those contacts of potential exposure. That way people can isolate to help prevent the spread of the virus.

The app could help improve contact tracing.

It’s something that Associate Professor of Epidemiology at MUSC Dr. Jeff Korte says is critical to managing the coronavirus pandemic.

"Nobody has an immunity to this virus, so it can spread like wildfire through our population," Korte said.

Korte says when someone tests positive for COVID-19, MUSC will contact trace back at least two weeks.

"If we can get that list of people that they've been with, then we can contact them and try to get them tested as well," Korte said. "Any positives that we identify, we start the cycle, over again."

He says people who have the highest risk of transmission are people who have been in close contact with someone with the virus for several minutes. He says it’s unlikely you will get coronavirus from passing someone who is 6-feet away, unless they cough and you walk through their cloud of respiratory droplets.

The Centers for Disease Control and prevention says contract tracing is part of a multipronged approach to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

State health officials are conducting contact tracing for people who test positive in South Carolina.

MUSC is also conducting in-house contact tracing efforts for its employees and students who have tested positive.

"What the electronic app can do is add a layer to that," Korte said. "We can use our smartphones that we're all carrying around to identify people that we don't know who we may have come in contact with."

Korte says Apple and Google already have an app that links to people's health records. Through the use of Bluetooth, wireless technology, the app will notify you if someone has recently tested positive for the virus in areas you've visited. MUSC is working closely with DHEC to create a version for South Carolina.

It's a voluntary app so you are not required to provide your information and would have to opt in to the network to utilize the feature. The app will be integrated with other networks to access a broader range of data from other users.

Korte says the medical information included won't be clinical records, so it's not going to be under HIPAA. He says through the app people will be able to schedule testing appointments among other things.

"What the app will allow us to do is inform people on a once a day basis how many people they may have come in contact with, if they are having more than the recommended number of contacts per day and other information about the risk environments that they have been living through," Korte said.

He says the app will not reveal the particular person who tested positive for the virus, individuals will remain anonymous. You also won't get the information in real-time it will be after you've visited a location.

"Locations can use it as a Bluetooth beacon, so that they can have one set up in their store," Korte said. "For example, they can track who's coming into the store, how many positives came in, how long did they stay. If someone came in as positive then they may want to instigate extra cleaning of surfaces just to make sure that the virus has been decontaminated."

The app could be released as early as a few weeks from now.

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