Utah officials explore free contact tracing tool, after spending millions on Healthy Together

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News/pool) In this April 22, 2020, file photo, Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City. In the foreground, a poster displays how the Healthy Together app was supposed to work, using location tracking for COVID-19 contact tracing.

State leaders have spent months and millions of dollars in unsuccessful pursuit of a digital tool to support the work of contact tracing, a labor-intensive but key piece of the campaign against COVID-19.

Now, officials are considering an option that could help them reach the same goal for free.

This week, Utah health leaders announced their intention to explore Google and Apple technology that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus. The software, called Exposure Notification Express, would be free to the state, according to a health department spokesman, and would fulfill the hopes officials once had for the $6.35 million Healthy Together app — which now acts as more of a symptom checker.

And the new contact tracing system won’t come a moment too soon, said Taymour Semnani, a tech entrepreneur who tried and failed to offer the state an app for free earlier this year.

“I support the governor’s persistence in addressing not only contact tracing but all of the tools that are in his toolbox to address COVID,” said Semnani, who’s previously criticized the delays in getting digital contact tracing off the ground. “I encourage stakeholders to stay out of his way and support him in his effort to get his tools to market.”

His exhortation about staying out of the way comes amid concerns about how the state has picked the technology it wants to use. Lobbyist Scott Howell, who worked with Semnani and his company Ferry in pitching its mobile app to Utah officials, said the state’s quest for a digital contact tracing system has been far from conventional.

But he agrees with Semnani that this is the time to embrace any tool that can help the state weather its current COVID-19 surge.

“Working with Ferry to get the app out to the public has been, in and of itself, an adventure that I’ve never seen the likes of in state government,” said Howell, a former state senator. “Ultimately, contact tracing is a lifesaver, and there will be a time and a place that we can discuss the unique [procurement] process that the state engaged in from the beginning.”

In announcing their interest in the Google and Apple software, state officials canceled an open search effort for tech vendors who could integrate their Bluetooth contact tracing tool with the existing Healthy Together app.

The state in August announced that it was tapping the market for Bluetooth contact tracing technology and invited companies to submit their bids by later that month. After failing to persuade state officials to take his app for free, Semnani joined with the Salt Lake City-based company Blyncsy to make a pitch for the contract.

But after weeks of reviewing submissions and interviewing candidates, the tech companies on Friday learned that the state had gone with Apple and Google instead.

According to FOX13, state officials met with representatives of the tech giants while simultaneously receiving bids from other companies — even though state law has established a “quiet period” that restricts officials from communicating with vendors in the middle of a procurement.

Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health, said these discussions don’t violate the rules since they were separate from the ongoing procurement process, which was focused on finding “a solution to integrate Bluetooth technology with our existing mobile app.”

Instead, the Google and Apple tools will not become part of Healthy Together and are simply an option that users can select on their Android devices or iPhones, Hudachko said. The state went with this solution in part because it is expected to be free, he said, citing a lack of ongoing funding to cover the cost of another tech contract.

By contrast, the three proposals considered in the “cost evaluation” part of the Bluetooth procurement involving Semnani and Blyncsy were priced from $1.5 million to $3.6 million over the anticipated five-year contract, Hudachko added.

Though the state does have leftover CARES Act money, that funding expires at year’s end and wouldn’t be available to pay the ongoing costs of a Bluetooth tool, he added.

Health officials don’t yet know when they’ll be able to activate Exposure Notification Express, he said, explaining that they need to connect the state’s databases to the Google and Apple tools in order for the system to work.

Mark Pittman, CEO at Blyncsy, applauded Gov. Gary Herbert for instituting measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the state and stressed the importance of contact tracing.

“Utah’s contact tracers have been completely overwhelmed by our rise in cases, and we need to find new ways to conduct automated contact tracing for more people, more quickly — without infringing on their privacy,” Pittman said in a prepared statement.

Utah officials rolled out Healthy Together in April as a way to lighten the load for swamped contact tracers by keeping a record of the person-to-person interactions that might transmit COVID-19. But only a couple hundred people agreed to hand over their location data to contact tracers, and because the app wasn’t working as originally intended, officials in July turned off the app’s GPS function in hopes of quelling privacy concerns.

Officials are now gravitating toward using Bluetooth for contact tracing, since it records personal contacts rather than tracking people’s movements.

The Google and Apple system does not share location data from a user with health officials or with either of the tech companies. Users can turn off the Bluetooth technology at any time in their settings, according to an online explanation.

Though stripped of the location-tracing component, Healthy Together is still valuable as a source of public health information and because of its daily coronavirus symptom checker, health officials say. Critics have fired back that the state shouldn’t continue to spend $300,000 per month on a tool that hasn’t worked as promised and amid questions about the state’s no-bid contract with Twenty, the company that created Healthy Together.

Hudachko said the state is continuing to pay Twenty the monthly installments of $300,000, as laid out in the contract that runs until March.