Hoping to speed the process of coronavirus contact tracing, Los Angeles County announced a feature Wednesday that will allow people who receive a positive COVID-19 test to quickly -- and anonymously use their cell phones to notify others they may have exposed.
"We launched digital contact tracing, so that the exposure notification time can be reduced from days to hours," said Christina Ghaly, MD, Director of LA County Health Services.
The county already partners with Healthvana, a company that uses text messages or emails to deliver result notifications to people who are tested for COVID-19 at county-operated sites.
The text or email bringing the results now also offers the opportunity to immediately forward a positive finding to your identified contacts--with or without
revealing their exposure to COVID was from you.
"They can anonymously do it in case there's some stigma involved, if it's at a workplace, or with friends and family they dont necessarily want to tell themselves," said Ramin Bastani, CEO of Healthvana. "The idea is you notify contacts so they can self isolate and know their status as soon as possible."
That notification will now include an extra link the patient can click and enter contact information for anyone the person believes may have been exposed to the virus. Those contacts then receive a notification from Healthvana alerting them that they may have been exposed, and also providing information about testing locations and other resources.
County officials said the feature will speed the process of contact tracing, meaning people who may have been exposed to the virus can quarantine and get tested more rapidly.
"This is a prime example of how to harness technology to help Angelenos immediately inform their contacts and help slow the spread of infection, especially as we see the rate of infections and hospitalizations rising in communities across the county," said Dr. Clemens Hong, director of Whole Person Care at the county Department of Health Services. "By rapidly alerting people who may have been exposed to the virus so they can use that information to isolate themselves and protect their loved ones, we can make big strides in slowing progression and reducing the terrible impacts of COVID illness."
Over the course of the COVID pandemic, officials acknowledge the contact tracing success rate in LA County has at times dropped below 50%, due to difficulties in connecting with people, and the reluctance of many to cooperate.
To assuage concerns, LA County has provided assurances that none of the information is shared with law enforcement agencies, and even for a time offered gift cards as a reward for cooperation. Still, for a significant number of cases, tracers are unable to notify any contacts.
According to the county, 50% of people who receive their test results on their cell phones from Healthvana view the results in 10 minutes or less, while 75% view them in one hour or less and 90% view them in four hours or less.
Some tech companies have also developed digital systems to detect and catalog close contacts that the infected person may not remember or not even know by name.
In spring, Apple and Google announced a collaboration for empowering smartphones to serve both as contact detectors, and as proxies for the people who carry them. Using Bluetooth and GPS, a smartphone can detect and record when it is near other smartphones, and hence in close contact with the people
The county and city of Los Angeles previously announced a partnership with the Citizen mobile-phone crime-tracking app, creating an opt-in feature that uses GPS technology to automatically notify users who were in locations where a COVID exposure may have occurred. Some critics, however, raised privacy concerns about the program, which tracks participants' locations to determine if they were potentially exposed.
Healthvana is not ruling out at some point adding digital detection capability when more people have opted in, but for now, sees that as beyond its primary focus.
"We're going after a first-order problem, which is tell someone they're positive as soon as humanly possible through their mobile phone, Secondarily, empower them to be able to share that information," Bastani said.
The company's roots are in sharing sensitive information, beginning with notification of partners at risk of contracting HIV.
Healthvana has scaled up to handle COVID notifications--so far counting three quarters of a million for LA County testing alone, and in all, 3.5 million to date.
"We have a good understanding of how to help empower people to help stop the spread," said Bastani. "Make them a part of the solution is a big key of what we are doing."
NBC4's Patrick Healy contributed to this report.