3 metro Atlanta counties pilot testing coronavirus contact tracing app



Three metro Atlanta counties are part of a Georgia pilot test for a new coronavirus contact tracing app.

The app is expected to be launched statewide after a “short” pilot period, said Chad Wasdin, a spokesman for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Department. The pilot program is being conducted in all three counties the health department serves. It is also being tested in counties surrounding Macon and Savannah.

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Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Director Audrey Arona described the pilot as a “contact tracing app” during an April 27 Norcross City Council meeting.

The web-based app, developed by Google and software company MTX Group, is a "online monitoring tool" that can be used in the contact tracing process for those who may have been exposed. Gov. Brian Kemp has previously described it as a "self-reporting app" that allows people to voluntarily submit their health information.

Contact tracing is intended to track how the virus is passed among people. Georgia’s app is one of many worldwide intended to rein in the pandemic. If the virus’s path can be tracked, even predicted, the hope is that more people will be able to resume at least part of their normal routines — and fewer will need to confine themselves at home.

The program is an “adjunct” to contact tracing work that has been done with other illnesses including sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis, according to Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The program that is being piloted does not use GPS data or Bluetooth technology, Nydam said. Contact tracing apps are designed to complement shoeleather work being done by the state’s human contact tracers. Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said last week she’d like the state to engage up to 1,000 of them, including state staffers, medical and public health students and potentially the Georgia National Guard.

Public health experts say many more contact tracers will be needed to do the work effectively, coupled with a robust testing system — something Georgia continues to play catch-up on

There are also a bevy of privacy concerns that come with using an app — and questions of how effective the technology can be. Some privacy advocates worry the data could be used for government surveillance or later sold to advertisers.

“There needs to be clear restrictions on how this (data) can be used and … discarded when the pandemic is over,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, told the AJC in April.

The pilot program was scheduled to begin in Gwinnett on May 1, Arona said during an April 27 Norcross City Council meeting.

In addition to the Gwinnett-Newton-Rockdale Health District, the app will be tested in the Macon-based North Central Health District, which covers Baldwin, Crawford, Hancock, Houston, Jasper, Jones, Macon-Bibb, Monroe, Peach, Putnam, Twiggs, Washington and Wilkinson counties, and the Savannah-based Coastal Health District, which covers Bryan, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty, Long and McIntosh counties.

Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report