Updated 12/17/2020 at 12:11 p.m. to include another way to retrieve a PIN number.
When David Rumble tested positive for COVID-19, he thought about the strangers he’d been around in recent days, potentially exposing them to the virus. He wanted to let them know they should quarantine and get tested. Luckily, there’s an app for that.
The MI COVID Alert app, launched by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services statewide in November, allows users to anonymously notify other users that they’ve tested positive with COVID-19 if they’ve been within 6-8 feet of them for 15 minutes or more.
Rumble had previously downloaded and started using MI COVID Alert, so when he tested positive “right away I tried to report it on the app,” he says.
But in this instance, Rumble couldn’t get the app to work. MI COVID Alert wouldn’t let him report his positive test.
“I sent two separate messages asking what I needed to do,” says Rumble. He didn’t hear back until ten days later, which he says felt like way too long when people’s lives may be at stake.
The issue that caused Rumble to not be able to alert other users appears to be widespread.
Click on the audio player above to hear an interview with Jonathan Warsh who is supervising Michigan’s contact tracing efforts.
Whenever anyone tests positive for COVID-19, they are supposed to receive a call from a state contact tracer. These state personnel ask infected people where they’ve been and who they’ve interacted with so that the contact tracers can anonymously notify potentially exposed individuals to quarantine and get tested. The contact tracers are also supposed to give MI COVID Alert users a special PIN number that they need to put into the app in order to alert other users that they’ve tested positive.
“The reason for that is that there was some concern when the app was developed that you could have bad behavior, that someone could say, ‘I’m really going to try and muck with the system by just saying I tested positive and then sending out a ping to lots of other people and creating unnecessary panic,’” explains Jonathan Warsh, the person leading the State of Michigan’s contact tracing effort.
But many people, like Rumble, aren’t receiving calls from contact tracers right now because the state is so backed up with cases.
“It just seems to me it should be easier and time is of the essence and adding roadblocks isn’t helping anyone.” — David Rumble
“It’s been very, very hard for us to keep pace with exponential growth, which is what the state has seen,” says Warsh. “So, we at this point can’t call every case and can’t call every contact because we just don’t have the capacity to do so.”
That means that there are app users who are testing positive for COVID-19 but who aren’t receiving the PIN number they need in order to notify other users that they’ve been near someone infected with the virus. As of Monday, December 7, the MI COVID Alert app had been downloaded 416,776 times but only about 165 people had entered their PIN number to let other users know that they had tested positive for the virus.
Warsh says if an app user doesn’t receive a call from a contact tracer with their PIN then they should reach out directly to the state or their local health department to get the number. But Rumble says that information isn’t being communicated to app users. In addition, it isn’t realistic.
“It just seems to me it should be easier and time is of the essence and adding roadblocks isn’t helping anyone,” says Rumble. “At the time I was sick and weak and did not feel like calling and dealing with trying to get a human being on the phone at the health department.”
Warsh says the state is making an effort to expand its contact tracing abilities. He says they are hiring more people and have reallocated state staff members from other departments to temporarily assist with contact tracing. The state is also working with local health departments to build out an automated data collection system.
“In the next few weeks people may get a text message with a form they can fill out that answers a lot of the questions that they might previously have been asked by a live human,” says Warsh. He says he hopes that will be able to expand the state’s contact tracing capacity.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, MDHHS has added an additional way that app users can retrieve their PIN. In addition to calling their local health department, app users who have tested positive can contact the Michigan COVID-19 hotline at 2-1-1 or 888-535-6136 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday to retrieve their PIN.
Related WDET Coverage: