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Utah’s $2.75 million contact tracing app is hardly being used: report

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  • Utah spent $2.75 million on its contact tracing app, Healthy Together, but only around 1.4% of the state’s residents have downloaded it so far, BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday.
  • The app’s developers also haven’t yet delivered on many of the features they promised, and some public health workers and lawmakers are worried it isn’t the best use of taxpayer money, according to BuzzFeed News.
  • Contact tracing apps won’t be useful unless a critical mass of people opt in, and many states, including Utah, are off to a slow start.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Utah’s coronavirus contact tracing app cost the state $2.75 million, and will cost it another $300,000 per month to maintain, yet only 45,000 of the state’s 3.2 million residents — around 1.4% — have downloaded it, BuzzFeed News reported on Tuesday.

The Healthy Together app, developed by a company called Twenty, has already hit its share of hiccups along the way.

Lawmakers and public health officials have expressed concern about its cost and effectiveness, Spanish speakers and Navajo Nation members said it’s diverting resources from more immediate needs and leaving them behind, and Twenty has failed to deliver on many of the features it promised the state, according to BuzzFeed News.

“The more Utahns choose to use this application, the more clearly our public health teams will be able to see exactly where, and whom the virus is infecting. In time, this will allow us to address outbreaks with a focused approach instead of widespread stay-at-home directives,” Gov. Gary Herbert said when the state released the app in April.

“This app will give public health workers information they need to understand and contain the pandemic and help Utahns get back to daily life,” Herbert said.

But nearly a month later, the app hasn’t caught on widely. Several healthcare workers told BuzzFeed News they haven’t been recommending it when seeing COVID-19 patients — and lawmakers have questioned whether it’s the most effective use of taxpayer money.

Utah State Rep. Suzanne Harrison told BuzzFeed News she was “concerned that perhaps, this will be something that profits the few at taxpayer expense.”

Utah officials have already spent $108 million on the state’s coronavirus response, thanks in part to competitive bidding restrictions that have been lifted amid the pandemic, Deseret News reported.

Some of those purchases have drawn scrutiny, including $800,000 for 20,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine, the controversial drug promoted by President Trump, and 100,000 swabs needed for testing bought at an approximately 1,100% markup at the recommendation of Sen. Mitt Romney, according to Deseret News.

Cost aside, Utah’s bet that Healthy Together will provide health officials with reliable enough information to monitor the state’s outbreak as it reopens depends on a majority of residents downloading and using the app — and it’s not clear that will ultimately happen.

One study has suggested that 60% of the population would need to adopt apps like Healthy Together for the technology to be effective. But according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, nearly the same percentage of Americans said they would be unwilling or unable to use a contact tracing tool developed by Google and Apple, which the companies rolled out publicly on Wednesday.

Critics have said such technology — which in the US has been strictly opt-in and not mandatory — is unlikely to get enough users to work. A similar app already deployed in Singapore was only used by 12% of people. South Dakota, the state with the highest known rate of participation so far, has only gotten 2% of its residents on board, the Associated Press reported.

Hugh Langley and Aaron Holmes contributed reporting to this story.

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