COVIDSafe app an important tool in fight against coronavirus
An opinion piece by the Australian Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Nick Coatsworth.
Contact tracing is not a simple process. It relies on skilled disease detectives being able to work with someone with COVID-19 to collect their known contacts, identify where and how unknown contacts were made and reach out sometimes to dozens of people or more to advise them they may be at risk.
Very early in the pandemic the Australian Government saw the opportunity to use smartphone technology to assist those contact tracers in keeping us safe from COVID-19. The result was the COVIDSafe app, a purpose built tool to augment contact tracing by recording contact with people who also have the app installed on their phone.
To describe the fastest app to be downloaded 5 million times in Australia as a failure is not only misinformed, but unhelpful to public health efforts at a crucial time in our pandemic response. The COVIDSafe app remains an essential part of our response toolkit. More than 20 countries have contacted us to discuss its development and use.
COVIDSafe is being used as we speak in Victoria and has been integrated into the workflow of their disease detectives. The current number of close contacts per case is approximately ten and the vast majority of COVID-19 diagnoses are being made amongst household contacts and family members. So it is no surprise that the contact tracers are finding the same contacts as the app.
To say that COVIDSafe has not identified any contacts above and beyond disease detectives is incorrect. An additional contact was identified in Victoria. Once identified the COVIDSafe contact is incorporated into the disease detective process so that the person can get professional advice and referral as needed.
By contrast the Apple-Google offering, apart from being released only once the global case numbers exceeded 9 million, substantively diminishes the role of the disease detective in the process. By their own admission, these tech giants will not allow public health officials access to the details of contacts. If an individual is diagnosed with COVID-19, they then allow the app to send a notification to all the phones of potential contacts. It would then be up to the contacts to call public health officials.
Given that our public health officials have kept us safe during this pandemic, we will not accept an application that undermines our national disease notification process.
COVIDSafe has worked since it was launched in a large number of scenarios, but it faced hurdles in others. Like any app, there were always going to be areas that could be improved especially considering the speed at which it evolved. We have listened to the experts from the community and industry and responded well with timely and regular updates.
To date, improvements to the COVIDSafe app include ensuring it now works on phones using international numbers and increasing its connectivity across different operating systems.
Shortly, an update to the app will expand it into the five most commonly spoken languages in Australia other than English, a step which will assist more Australians in making the decision to download, register and use the app.
Australia’s COVIDSafe app is a success. It has been downloaded and registered 6.49 million times. It occupies an important place in our toolkit to respond to future outbreaks. I’m glad that it is there, and so are the hundreds of disease detectives around the country.
The states and territories are accessing the data generated through the app when they need it. It is a testament to the skills of their contact tracers and the candidness of Australians in sharing their contacts with those tracers in the interest of our collective health.
What of the glitches in COVID-Safe that have been so often reported, with scant attention to the potential benefits of the app? Now I’m all for scrutiny. But ignoring or failing to acknowledge the successes, improvements and inherent utility of COVIDSafe dismisses the hard work and ingenuity of a team of developers who rose to the task of creating an Australian-made tool for our health response.
And it downplays its role when we need to continue to build confidence in the app, and encourage more people to download and register it. That’s when it’s most effective, when it can do the most good for all of us. Highlighting otherwise risks a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If we see a situation where its use is widespread and it is turning up hundreds of cases a day, it will mean that every other step which we have been putting in place has not been enough to keep Australians safe from COVID-19. I hope such a day never comes.