With Tuesday's release of iOS 13.7, Public Health Authorities worldwide will now be able to implement coronavirus exposure tracking without having to design their own individual apps, thanks to Apple and Google's planned extension of their system.
Continuing their joint contact tracing technology, Apple and Google's COVID-19 systems for Android and iPhone are to gain an option to make it faster for regional or public health authorities to implement. Instead of having to develop an entire customized app, authorities can now provide localized health instructions. Using the new Exposure Notifications Express, Apple and Google will present those instructions in the case of suspected exposure.
"As the next step in our work with public health authorities on Exposure Notifications," Apple and Google said, we are making it easier and faster for them to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app."
"Exposure Notifications Express provides another option for public health authorities to supplement their existing contact tracing operations with technology without compromising on the project's core tenets of user privacy and security," continued Apple and Google. "Existing apps using the Exposure Notification API will be compatible with Exposure Notifications Express, and we are committed to supporting public health authorities that have deployed or are building custom apps."
What users see
The new Exposure Notifications Express requires iOS 13.7. If a user is in a state or other territory utilizing this extension to Apple and Google's original system, they will be notified that the service is available. Just through tapping to confirm permission, the user can turn on the feature without downloading an app.
Initially, public health authorities in Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, DC, will have the new system. Apple and Google expect other states to add the functionality.
When a user is in a region where this is available, their iPhone or Android phone will continue to use their current contract tracing technology. However, they will now do so with specific reference to what each public health authority decides are the criteria for warning users about exposure.
Then if that list of criteria is met, the phone will display a warning. The iPhone will also then include the particular advice provided by the authority, such as directing the user to the correct places for treatment or testing, and so forth.
Apple and Google have consulted with health officials
Apple and Google representatives said that the extension to the system is aimed at making it simpler and faster for users to opt-in, and also that it was done following consultation with health authorities.
"Exposure Notifications Express will help to save lives, greatly enhance our contact tracing operation, and advance our statewide COVID-19 recovery," said Larry Hogan, Governor of Maryland. "We appreciate our collaboration with Apple and Google, and look forward to launching this state-of-the-art technology in Maryland."
Currently, COVID-19 is fatal in 3% of all cases in the United States, so finding new ways to get people to adopt contact tracing can make a significant difference in cutting down the number of cases.
"We've been exploring different app uptake levels for some time in the UK, and we're really pleased to see that contact tracing apps in the UK and the USA have the potential to meaningfully reduce the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths at all levels of app uptake across the population," said Professor Cristophe Fraser, Department of Health at Oxford University.
"For example, we estimate that a well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce combined with 15% uptake could reduce infections by 15% and deaths by 11%," he said. The UK switched to using Apple/Google's system after its initial attempts to devise its own technology simply didn't work.
Apps can still use the Apple/Google system
The new notification system is a planned extension to the app-based Apple and Google technology, and authorities are still able to implement their own apps. Over 20 countries and region globally have designed apps using the system, and so have and states or territories covering 55% of the US population.
"As the first state in the nation to launch an exposure notification app built on the Apple and Google ENS [Exposure Notifications System] framework, Virginia is very pleased with the continued widespread adoption of this new technology by our citizens," said Norman Oliver, MD, MA, Virginia Department of Health Commissioner.
"In the first few weeks, almost half a million Virginians have downloaded COVIDWISE," he continued. "We know the more Virginians that use COVIDWISE and receive exposure notifications, the more effective our disease prevention activities will be within our communities. It's another important tool in the fight against COVID-19."