Do contact tracing apps actually work?

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it has forced the rapid advancement of technology. Not only does this apply to virtual care, but academic conferences have also moved into the virtual sphere. Today, my colleagues and I presented our research at the International Conference on Communication in Healthcare in Vienna (a.k.a. from the comfort of my Canadian living room). We examined Singapore’s use of digital communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of our most interesting findings was with respect to an app used by Singapore’s government called Trace Together. This voluntary app uses Bluetooth technology for contact tracing. Interestingly, Canada is moving forward with a very similar initiative.

Problems with the Trace Together app

Since rolling out the app in Singapore, there have been various issues. One complaint is that the app eats up the battery life of the user’s phone. You need to have the app open in order for it to function, and when it is open, you can’t have other apps running at the same time. Also, not everyone trusts that the app respects privacy.

Maybe this is why less than half of the population of Singapore have downloaded the app to date. In order for such an app to be effective, uptake would need to be at least 75% according to Singapore’s National Development Minister Lawrence Wong. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Officer of Health, said that it is possible that a lower uptake rate could be effective during a press briefing on September 1. She emphasized the potential benefit the app could have with respect to Canada’s younger demographic who are more likely to visit restaurants and pubs.

Information seems to changing daily and it is hard to truly know how effective this technology will be. We do know that Singapore is now moving to wearable bracelets for contact tracing rather than relying solely on the app.

As Canada adopts a very similar technology for contact tracing, we should look to Singapore for important lessons and cautions.

Are you willing to download a contact tracing app on your phone?

I’m curious. Let me know in the comments below!

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