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Oahu-based contact tracing phone app waiting to launch

Nonprofit develops voluntary self-reporting software that keeps location data secure

A screenshot shows a sample of what a map that the Perseus contact tracing app could compile based on user-submitted data. Developed by a Hawaii nonprofit, the app allows people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to anonymously report their symptoms and locations so that other people who have been in the same area can be notified. The location data would only be on the user’s phone unless they agree to share it anonymously. — Screenshot courtesy of Kevin Vaccarello

An Oahu-based nonprofit with the help of a Maui surgeon has been developing an app to be used as an anonymous, voluntary self-reporting tool for residents and visitors during the pandemic.

The Planned Emergency Response System Engaging Unified Support app or “Perseus,” which has been built over the past five months in Waimanalo by Sustain Hawaii, is designed to enhance existing county and state testing and tracing protocols.

“This app is a comprehensive approach to safely reopening with many features, contact tracing being one of many,” executive director Kevin Vaccarello said Tuesday. “It’s like a Swiss Army Knife while most others are like plastic knives. It can help because it incorporates near real-time COVID-19 positive test results with time-stamped location data that the user voluntarily and anonymously chooses to share.”

Contact tracing is effective in slowing the spread of the virus only when COVID-positive people receive their test results quickly enough before unknowingly infecting others. Vaccarello said the app would efficiently notify people if they had potentially crossed paths with someone at a particular date, time, location and for a certain duration, based on information reported to the app. People can then take the proper steps to get tested or self-quarantine.

In the app, users can self-report their symptoms for an automated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention response, answering questions like “how are you feeling today?” or logging other useful information.

The Perseus contact tracing app would allow people to report and keep track of their symptoms. — Screenshot courtesy of Kevin Vaccarello

They then receive a notification every 24 hours and can take a few more seconds to provide an update. The user also is asked to turn on location services and push notifications. Unlike with Google Maps, Yelp, Waze, weather reports and other location-based apps, “the difference is we don’t receive the location data,” Vaccarello said.

“That’s privately kept only on the user’s phone. The only time it can be shared is if the user tests COVID-19 positive, at which time they’re asked if they’d be willing to help others stay safe in case they’ve been exposed,” he explained. “If the user is willing to voluntarily share the data, they choose which data they wish to share and only can do so anonymously.”

The app then provides possible exposure notification matches to users over the past 24 days. It also shows which locations in the last three hours may have had airborne exposure concerns, or which locations in the past 72 hours that may still have traces of the virus.

Vaccarello said the app has several other functions, including contact tracing that would complement state efforts, telehealth features, test results updates, quarantine management and digital scanning for QR codes to determine if an individual can safely enter a plane, hotel, school, bank, store or restaurant. There are also smartcards, tags and other options for people who may not have smartphones.

Earlier this month, the state departments of health and transportation launched a Safe Travels app that essentially replaces the required travel form. Vaccarello said the Perseus app collects more information and has more functions within the platform.

A calendar in the app would help people keep track of their exposure history. Developers said the digital and manual contact tracing must go together to help fight spread of the virus. — Screenshot courtesy of Kevin Vaccarello

Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin introduced a resolution for Friday’s council meeting urging Mayor Michael Victorino to send a letter to Apple and Google to allow the release of the Hawaii-made voluntary contact tracing app.

In an email, Paltin said that if the app is approved, it would be free and optional for Maui County residents to use, a voluntary and private app to “effectively fight against COVID-19.”

“This is a free effective tracing tool that is much less invasive than many of the apps already on folk’s phones,” she said.

Council members on Friday voted 5-3, with one excused, to approve the resolution, with some unsure of an app they’d yet to see and others saying it was worth asking the mayor to push for the app.

The issue will go to Paltin’s Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee and Council Member Mike Molina’s Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee.

The Perseus contact tracing app is currently approved for beta testing by Apple and Google for a pilot run in Kauai County, and Vaccarello said he would love to have a pilot in Maui County as well. They are just waiting on at least one public endorsement from county or state authorities to allow the public access to the app.

“We should be able to launch within one week of receiving and submitting such endorsements,” he said. “It’s a robust, private, secure, voluntary platform.”

The intent is to have federal CARES Act funds cover the costs of the app and its basic functions, making it free for all Hawaii residents to use. Out-of-state visitors would have to pay for its use.

Some of the more advanced features may have fees if CARES Act funds and insurance won’t cover them, Vaccarello said.

Addressing privacy concerns, Vaccarello pointed out that many apps and websites already collect more data than most people realize. He said that Perseus is designed to keep information secure and released only when necessary and upon the user’s consent.

“All location data is only on the users’ phones and can only voluntarily and anonymously be shared in whatever detail chosen, if the user tests COVID-19 positive,” Vaccarello said.

He added that they’ve also worked to be compliant with HIPAA medical privacy laws as well as SOC2-level protocol, which was designed by the American Institute of CPAs to measure the security and privacy of certain services.

Vaccarello said this means “we follow the same standards as doctors, hospital and/or insurance companies to protect people’s personal health information and/or personally identifiable information.”

When asked how effective the app would be if just a few people downloaded it, Vaccarello said it would still be “helpful and effective” even if just one COVID-positive person anonymously shares their location data. Developers plan to offer a way for people to see possible places of exposure even if they don’t have the app or a smartphone.

The nonprofit also has been working with Dr. Stephanie Yan, a Wailuku-based general surgeon.

“People are dying and the economy is on life support. We need something like this ASAP,” Yan said of the app. “It has Hawaiian communities in mind and starts from that foundation and is built up from that concern to protect the most vulnerable and those disproportionately affected — the Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians and Filipinos.”

Anything that slows down notification by 24 hours after a positive test result “lessens success” of controlling a potential spread during the pandemic, Yan said. She pointed out, through mathematical modeling, that manual contact tracing alone during COVID-19 without digital assistance is not as effective. In past outbreaks, manual contact tracing has been successful depending on how the disease spreads.

Yan added that other parts of the world that have used contact tracing to help mitigate the spread of a disease have relied on a digital contact tracing app.

“If we are going to be dealing with this virus long term, you can’t adopt a technology solution that will ask the most vulnerable to just hide out for the next two years,” she said. “This app also allows the person in the community who is positive with COVID-19 to immediately notify their contacts, just like what people are already doing on social media, but this allows for anonymity and privacy without the need for going through a gatekeeper which is already strapped for resources and manpower, so we don’t lose the epidemiological advantage provided by contact tracing.”

Sustain Hawaii is currently building a new website where more information about the app can be found, at https://perseus.id.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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