Utah is accepting applications from companies that can supply a Bluetooth contact tracing technology to track the spread of COVID-19.
“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.
“They should’ve from the very beginning made sure they had the best app,” the Sandy Democrat said. “I don’t think that happened.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”