Utah seeks new contact tracing technology, even as it keeps paying for existing app

Utah is accepting applications from companies that can supply a Bluetooth contact tracing technology to track the spread of COVID-19.

That’s not because state leaders want to scrap Healthy Together, the multimillion-dollar app they already have, according to the governor’s office. They just want to see what else is out there.

“Since the contract with Healthy Together was negotiated under emergency [no bid] procurement, we’re simply doing our due diligence to ensure that we’re using the best possible Bluetooth technology as we move forward with using new tools to detect COVID-19 in our communities,” Anna Lehnardt, Gov. Gary Herbert’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

If officials like a submission, they could fold the new Bluetooth technology into the Healthy Together app, she added.

It’s the latest twist in the state’s relationship with its mobile app — with critics saying it hasn’t delivered as a contact tracing tool and has failed to meet contractual benchmarks. And although Rep. Andrew Stoddard said he’s glad the state is now open to considering other technologies, he believes this review of available options is long overdue.

“They should’ve from the very beginning made sure they had the best app,” the Sandy Democrat said. “I don’t think that happened.”

The state’s search for Bluetooth technologies is also a source of frustration for Taymour Semnani, a tech executive who tried to give the state a free contact tracing app several months ago. So far, officials haven’t taken Semnani up on his offer, and he questions whether it’s worth his company’s time and effort to enter a competitive bidding process in hopes of persuading the state to accept his donation.

“I don’t understand the rationale for putting it out for bid,” he said. “It just feels very much like they’re covering themselves. It has nothing to do with getting an effective contact tracing system out there.”

The state last week announced that it was tapping the market for contact tracing technology, inviting companies to submit their bids by Aug. 26 with the idea of signing a one-year contract in mid-September.

The state’s invitation to submit bids on Bluetooth contact tracing explains that officials are looking for a technology that accurately identifies when any two app users spend more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of one another; safeguards user anonymity and information; has a process for notifying users of their exposure to a COVID-19 patient; and lets users set their privacy and data sharing settings.

By contrast, Twenty, the tech firm that created Healthy Together, didn’t have to go through a competitive process before inking a deal with the state. In the early days of the pandemic, officials were operating under emergency rules that enabled them to award no-bid contracts, contending that the standard procurement processes would’ve bogged them down during the global race for supplies and expertise.

Officials hoped Healthy Together would alleviate the workload for contact tracers by logging a user’s whereabouts in real time and producing a record that a person could choose to share with health workers after testing positive for the coronavirus.

But only a handful of users ended up being willing to hand over their location data to health workers, with Salt Lake County health officials saying they didn’t use the app at all for contact tracing.

The app has 66,928 total users, according to the company.

Given the unpopularity of Healthy Together’s GPS feature, state leaders last month disabled the function with the goal of quelling privacy concerns and persuading more people to download the app. The app also includes a symptom assessment, guides users to a local testing site if they report signs of the coronavirus, and spreads important public health information, Utah officials said, explaining that Healthy Together would continue as an important part of the state’s response.

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News pool file photo) Jared Allgood, Twenty co-founder and chief strategy officer, talks about the new Healthy Together app during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, April 22, 2020.

At the time, Twenty’s co-founder said Healthy Together would retain a Bluetooth component that could track close encounters between any two users, meaning that the app might still be helpful for contact tracing. State health officials, on the other hand, indicated they hadn’t decided if they’d use Bluetooth going forward.

A health department spokesman reported Wednesday that users can activate Bluetooth in Healthy Together but said the state hasn’t set up a system to integrate this information into contact tracing.

That’s not because of a problem with Healthy Together’s Bluetooth feature, Lehnardt said, but because health officials are still deciding how they want to use the technology.

While the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB) initially forged and oversaw the relationship with Twenty, the contract has moved over to the state’s health department — which is now “looking at revisions” to align the agreement with regular protocols rather than emergency standards, Lehnardt wrote.

The state has continued to pay Twenty the $300,000 monthly fee laid out in the original contract to cover tech development, support and service for up to a million people, she added. GOMB reimburses the company each month after health officials confirm that Twenty is living up to its obligations.

To date, the state has paid Twenty more than $4 million, between the $2.75 million cost of the Healthy Together app and the monthly fee, Lehnardt reported.

Stoddard characterized the monthly disbursements to Twenty as “absolutely a waste of money,” especially since the app isn’t working as anticipated but said he’s sensed that officials have been reluctant to acknowledge mistakes during the pandemic.

“But we’re dealing with something so unprecedented that it’s completely understandable to make mistakes and to admit that,” he said.

In her email, Lehnardt defended the state’s investment in the app.

“Our fight against COVID-19 has many stages, and we believe the app will become increasingly useful to Utahns as we unveil the newest version of the app in coming months,” she wrote. “We look forward to sharing these new features with Utahns and believe many will want to download the app when they see the many benefits it offers.”

In a prepared statement, Twenty representatives expressed support for the state’s attempt “to ensure they have the best possible tools” to meet the needs of the health department.

“If the state identifies any technology of value,” the statement continued, “we are open and willing to integrate the technology into Healthy Together.”

Semnani, owner and co-founder of the tech company Ferry, says his app is better than Healthy Together at detecting the close personal encounters that could transmit the virus and that the state could incorporate his Bluetooth technology into its existing app. But he doesn’t want to compete with other companies just so he can give his technology away, pointing to a section of Utah law that indicates this procurement process isn’t necessary for accepting a donation.

State information technology experts have already reviewed Ferry’s app and gave it positive reviews, according to an email shared by Semnani. The June 4 email written by the state’s deputy director of technology services states that the app “worked well” under cursory testing.

In response to Semnani’s concerns, Lehnardt said the state is relying on a “robust process” to find the best available Bluetooth technology, adding that officials have received “a number of unsolicited offers on contact tracing.”

At this point, though, Semnani said he’s ready to give up.

“You win. But I don’t know what you win at,” he said, as if addressing state officials. “If the whole point is to make sure you don’t receive a donation for a product that your own people say works, then fine. You won.”