Tuesday, July 14, 2020

County working on an app for coronavirus contact tracing

Economic dashboard, long-term strategies coming soon

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County Public Health officials are working on a deal to secure an Apple application that allows users to opt in to a coronavirus contact tracing effort using their phones.

The app will be voluntary, using Bluetooth technology to note one phone’s proximity to other phones that are also registered, and while officials are not sure how much buy-in they will get, Public Health director Joni Reynolds says any participation will be helpful.

Reynolds explained that deploying the contact tracing system would occur in three stages.

“There are several gates to go through to get an app on contact tracing,” she said.

The first gate is to go through an authentication process with Apple as a public health agency, requiring that the county agrees to the terms Apple has laid out for users. The second gate would be to actually customize the app, which Reynolds estimated would take at least two weeks. Then the third gate would be to launch the application with the public.

The costs would be minimal due to Apple offering voluntary promotions, so instead of $150,000 the app’s cost would be just under $50,000. The only other cost would be outreach and marketing.

County commissioner Jonathan Houck asked what participation rate is optimal among the population.

Reynolds replied that the optimal rate is 70 percent, “but even with minimal participation there is a benefit,” she said.

County manager Matthew Birnie said many people don’t understand that this app uses Bluetooth technology to note proximity to others, but it doesn’t track where people travel.

Reynolds reviewed that people have to push a button to report if they test positive for COVID-19, then another to push out notifications to those with whom they came into contact for an extended period of perhaps 10 minutes or longer.

The commissioners all agreed the app might be worthwhile.

“I think everything we can offer helps,” said commissioner Roland Mason.

Commissioner John Messner said he would also support it, and said he is most concerned right now with promoting a better culture of masking for people out in public.

Masks, recovery and personnel needs

“I feel like masking can be challenging, and peer pressure goes both ways… It does appear to be more effective than previously thought. It’s kind of a no-brainer, to protect people and our economy,” said Messner. He said he is hearing many requests that more people mask-up on Elk Avenue.

“We could be considering it in the public health order. But more important is making it a part of our culture,” he commented.

Reynolds offered some advice of her own surrounding mask culture, saying, “Touching your mask in public is like touching your underwear in public. You just shouldn’t do it.”

“I think that’s the kind of image we need to drive home,” quipped Houck.

Other county efforts are ongoing economic recovery and replenishing the Health and Human Services Department personnel.

Community and Economic Development director Cathie Pagano gave an overview of the One Valley Leadership Council’s plans for managing the coronavirus in the long term. Phase 1 is laying the groundwork this summer, she said. The recovery team is working on scenario planning and looking for strategic approaches to deal with the unknowns. “Right now it is also looking at a vulnerability analysis of what those [higher risk] populations are and how they might be shifting and growing over time so we can work with them,” she said.

There is also survey work among citizens regarding their needs and comfort levels, and an economic dashboard on the county website coming soon with current lodging numbers and sales tax data.

Phase 2 is a longer-term economic recovery strategy. “We need to be sensitive to where our community is at,” said Pagano. “We need to be sure the community is ready to have those conversations, and if there is a resurgence of cases in the fall that may not be the time.”

Messner added that he is looking for industry group structures to be clear, transparent and coordinated with the incident command efforts.

Economic coffers are drying up and Pagano said the utility assistance fund now has an actual deficit of about $500.

Adult protective services are struggling with some people who would benefit from being in the senior care center, but cannot admit new residents until the center’s pandemic outbreak status ends later this month.

The overall costs Reynolds estimates for adequate personnel for the ongoing outbreak response is just under $500,000 per year. This includes testing, education, follow-up on test results, case management and support, guidance development, coordination with health care providers and epidemiology. It will require up to six new positions, one of which is a new public health supervisor. Reynolds explained that she has been filling in that position since it was vacated last year, and the time has come to find a replacement, as she is trying to handle more than her share of work as health director.

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