Fewer than 800 people who tested positive for coronavirus in Australia had the COVIDsafe app and shared its data for contact tracing, according to a long-overdue government report into the effectiveness of its mobile app.
COVIDSafe uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to log close contacts or ‘digital handshakes’ between users, and then sends these to a national database and to state health authorities if a user tests positive for the COVID-19 virus.
According to a new Department of Health report, 779 people who tested positive for COVID-19 had the app and consented to do this, revealing 1.65 million “digital handshakes” with other COVIDSafe users and 2,827 potential close contacts being identified from 37,668 encounters.
There have been 7.6 million app registrations, according to the report, which covers the period between 26 April 2020 to 15 May 2021. The report does not say how many active users there are of the app.
The report confirms only 17 of the contacts were not already identified by manual contact tracing and that all of these contacts were in New South Wales in 2020. It mentions the NSW figure and notes the app also helped identify an exposure site which had another 544 potential contacts. But the new report does not mention any other contacts found through the app that were not also found through manual tracing.
Victoria has integrated COVIDSafe data into its contact tracing efforts, according to the report, which notes 1,800 cases in the state “said that they have the app”.
“Queensland and South Australia have had very low numbers of community transmission and have not identified additional contacts,” the report said.
“The other states and territories have not had a need to use the app due to low case numbers.”
Prepared by the Health department, the report was released late Thursday, nearly a year after the government was required by legislation to table information on the app’s effectiveness.
While the government marketed the app as “digital sunscreen” and key to easing restrictions, the document shows it has been only a limited tool that needed a major upgrade.
A major update to the app in December last year to introduce a new Bluetooth protocol more than doubling the average number of contacts captured by users. The report said the app’s benefit to contact tracers “would become more evident” in future outbreaks because of this protocol improvement.
The report is dated July 2021 and does not include the recent COVID-19 outbreaks.
The Minister’s foreword defends the app and puts its lack of assistance down to Australia’s relatively successful suppression strategy.
“The app was designed to deal with the potential of greater concentration of infection in the community. The low community transmission in combination with the use of existing, well established tracing processes has limited the need of public health officials to rely on COVIDSafe,” it said.
“Nonetheless, every close contact identified through COVIDSafe was a potential outbreak risk”
The government paid private contractors nearly $10 million for work on COVIDSafe, while it is still costing $60,000 per month to continue running.
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