The COVIDSafe app has been out for nearly a month but Australian states and territories have scarcely used it for any of the crucial contact tracing data it provides.
The COVIDSafe app has faced a mountain of scrutiny due to privacy and security issues as well as some worrying flaws. While these concerns remain valid, the legislation and source code has shown it’s perhaps not the big bad everyone thought it might be. Now it seems that with Australia’s infection rates declining drastically, there hasn’t been much need for it.
Part of this might also be due to the fact that while the app was released on April 26, it took more than two weeks for the states and territories to officially sign up to use it, according to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly in a media conference on May 13.
NSW has the largest number of cases since COVID-19 was first detected in Australia. Since January 25, it has recorded over 3,000 cases and during those four months it used a team of contact tracers to determine who might need to be tested and quarantined. The COVIDSafe app was touted as a solution to relieve the manual workload of this team, and others around the country. But since it was released in late April, cases have continued to drop dramatically.
NSW Health confirmed to Gizmodo Australia on May 19 that it hadn’t needed to access the data yet, despite having a specialised team trained up and at the ready.
“NSW’s new cases since Friday have been in hotel quarantine, and as such have not generated community contacts,” a NSW Health spokesperson said to Gizmodo Australia.
It added that its sophisticated contract tracing team had increased to 150 since the beginning of the health crisis and it had the capacity to expand further.
The situation is similar in other states where coronavirus has surged in earlier months. Gizmodo Australia understands that Queensland Health have not needed to use the app’s data since few new cases had appeared in the state. It has 2000 contact tracers at its ready if the situation flares up again but its daily count of new cases has dropped in recent days.
Victorian health authorities said it was too early to tell how useful the app would be for contact tracing when we asked them on Monday morning but the ABC has since reported on Wednesday it’s been used for a single patient.
Victoria did confirm it had more 1,000 people trained in contact tracing with a specialised team trained to handle the sensitive data COVIDSafe provides.
“We’ve grown our contact tracing team from less than 60 people to more than 1,000 disease detectives who quickly chase up confirmed cases, isolating anyone who has potentially been infected to slow the spread of coronavirus within the community,” a spokesperson from the state’s health department said in an email.
“Access to the COVIDSafe app data is strictly limited to trained public health officers carrying out contact tracing functions, who follow strict privacy laws when handling private health data.”
South Australia, who has been free of new coronavirus cases for nearly two weeks, confirmed it had also not needed to access the app’s data for contact tracing.
“We have only had one case in SA since the COVIDSafe app launched. This person had been quarantining in their family home since their arrival from the UK so the app was not needed,” a health official said in an email on Tuesday.
Similarly, Tasmanian officials pointed to the low number of cases to explain why the app’s usage had been non-existent so far.
“Tasmania has had limited opportunity to utilise the COVIDSafe app to date due to there having been only one confirmed case in the State since 8 May,” a public health spokesperson said to Gizmodo Australia.
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In the ACT, a health spokesperson confirmed the app’s data had not yet been accessed but that a team was ready if the situation arose.
“Currently a limited number of staff have access to app data, but ACT Health can increase this quickly if required. As this is a new capability, ACT Health is still working out the best way to use the app and data,” a spokesperson said to Gizmodo Australia on Tuesday morning.
“Depending on workload, the teams currently have 10-20 people on any given day. There is additional capacity to surge if required. At the height of the new infections in March, the team was contacting over 500 people each day.”
A Northern Territory official told Gizmodo Australia on Monday there hadn’t been a single case of community transmission recorded since the outbreak started and no new cases had been confirmed since early May.
Western Australian authorities didn’t respond to our queries in time for publication.
Of course, despite the omissions from the country’s states and territories, it’s not to say the app won’t be useful if a second surge of the contagious virus happens in the coming months. It’s just that by the time it was finally working, its need had dropped considerably due to Australia’s rapid response in late March and early April. For our sake, let’s hope it continues to not be needed.
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