Minnesota officials say the COVID tracking app is an essential tool in fighting the pandemic. Few people actually use it.

The technology touted by state officials to help slow the spread of COVID-19 is rarely used by the millions of Minnesotans who have it on their phones, an analysis of state data shows.

The state launched the “COVIDAware MN” app in November 2020. The app notifies a person that they may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

But the app’s effectiveness depends on the willingness and ability of the person who tested positive to enter a code generated by the state health department.

In a year and a half the technology has been online, the state has generated 653,362 codes related to positive COVID test results. Data analyzed by 5 INVESTIGATES shows that only 57,402, or less than 10%, were returned to the app.

Utilization was even worse when the Omicron wave hit Minnesota in January. State data revealed the week after cases peaked, only 4% of codes sent to COVID-positive patients were used in the app.

Despite the low turnout, state officials defended the technology.

“We’re pretty confident, certainly in Minnesota, that this, along with other measures, has resulted in two really, really critical things: saving lives and reducing the spread of COVID-19,” said Commissioner Tarek Tomes. from the Minnesota Department of Information. Technology, or MNIT.

To date, more than 2.7 million people in Minnesota have signed up by downloading the app or turning on exposure notifications on their Apple devices.

The code never came

But Andrew Loo said the app failed to do what the state promised.

As a cancer survivor, Loo had downloaded the app as soon as it became available because he said he wanted to protect himself, his wife (who works in healthcare) and anyone else they were with. were in close contact.

“I was hoping it would help people, but it just didn’t work out that way,” Loo said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.

After his positive COVID test, Loo expected to receive a text containing a code to put in the app. When he did not receive this text, he called the Minnesota Department of Health.

“They said I would get a code, and I didn’t,” he recalls. “I called back, and they said it would be on the way.”

The code never came.

“We were both like, are you kidding me?” he said.

Two weeks into his symptoms and frustrated with the process, Loo quit the COVIDAware MN app.

“At that time I was already outside the quarantine window,” he said. “I thought what’s the use of continuing to chase after that.”

5 INVESTIGATES has confirmed that other users have experienced similar issues. During the Omicron wave, someone who received a code from the health department didn’t bother putting it into the app because the text message arrived 10 days after testing positive.

Tomes deferred questions about those delays to health department officials, who declined multiple interview requests on the topic.

MDH released a statement to 5 INVESTIGATES, saying in part that since the technology was brand new, the department “had no expectations of its performance” and that the demand for testing during the Omicron wave “highlighted all aspects maintained test systems”. by the state and other entities, resulting in some test results being provided later than would normally have been the case.

Exposure notification technology came online in Minnesota at a time when contact tracing resources were stretched thin and vaccines weren’t yet widely available to the general public.

The COVIDAware MN app does not collect any personal information, a point emphasized by Governor Tim Walz when he announced it was available for download.

“This is an opt-in alternative,” he said during a daily press briefing in late November 2020. “You don’t have to put the code in your phone, and you don’t don’t have to warn others around you. I would strongly encourage you, if not beg of you, please do it.

The state’s “COVIDAware MN” app and Apple devices use exposure notification technology.
Bluetooth-enabled phones exchange random keys when in close proximity to each other.

The app has been celebrated as an inexpensive, low-maintenance but highly effective way to track covid.

It was created by the state in partnership with the nonprofit PathCheck Foundation at a one-time cost of $170,000. No government employees are assigned to maintain the application.

A year and a half later, the state is now attributing the low usage numbers to COVID-related fatigue.

“You have to make things like this as easy as possible,” Tomes said in an interview. He also acknowledged that the state needs to re-examine its process for issuing codes to COVID-positive patients.

“One of the things we’ve seen that we will continually and relentlessly advocate for is to do whatever we can to shorten those timelines,” Tomes said.

However, the limitations of the technology raise questions about its future effectiveness. Currently, people who test positive in a home test cannot use the app.

Tomes said the state is currently considering adding a “self-reporting” option, allowing people who test positive at home to redeem a code in the app without MDH verifying the result via a laboratory test.

In a statement, MDH said that as the widespread use of rapid home tests increases, “we are exploring how best to adapt to this new reality so that COVIDAwareMN can continue to be relevant and better serve Minnesotans as intended”.

Lance B. Holton