Apple, Google, Others Raise Awareness About Virus-Fighting Smartphone Tools
Tech titans are teaming up to remind Americans that their phones could be used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Apple, Google, nonprofit organizations, venture capitalists and others are funding the first national campaign to encourage people to turn on smartphone tools notifying them if they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus. The campaign could bring renewed attention to Apple and Google’s virus-tracing system, which has not yet gained widespread U.S. traction.
The “Connect and Protect” ad campaign uses a combination of celebrities and local influencers to raise awareness about the availability of the tech tools, which are now available in 24 states, territories and D.C. The campaign is launching as more U.S. states are planning launch apps based on the Apple and Google tools and there is some evidence such tools have been more effective abroad where they were adopted more broadly.
“We now have evidence that it’s effective, we now have critical mass and we now have an administration that is responding to the pandemic at a national level,” said Kameka Dempsey, a member of the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, the nonprofit running the Connect and Protect campaign. “It feels like the timing is right.”
The campaign comes as the United States approaches a grim milestone in the pandemic.
It’s been almost a year since the first covid-19 fatality in the United States, and nearly 500,000 Americans have lost their lives. Backers of the advertising campaign say the smartphone tools could play a key role in containing the pandemic as many Americans wait to get vaccines.
“Phone-based Exposure Notifications can be a powerful public health tool to help control the spread of COVID-19 and save thousands of lives,” said Rajiv J. Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation and a former Obama official, which is one of the advertising campaign’s sponsors. “Even as we race forward with vaccines, we urgently need to ramp up testing and tracing to combat the virus.”
If adopted widely, the tools could play a critical role in future phases of the pandemic as more schools, businesses and public spaces reopen, and the need for effective contact tracing grows.
The campaign is specifically designed to focus on Black and Latino communities, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Dempsey said the campaign is designed to build trust in the smartphone tracing tools by focusing on a message of community.
Virginia’s Covidwise app sends alerts like the one seen in this demonstration when the phone has spent 15 minutes in close proximity to the phone of someone else who tests positive for the coronavirus.
The United States took a state-by-state approach to digital contact tracing.
The Apple and Google partnership was widely seen as one of the most promising tech efforts aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus. But it initially faced broad privacy concerns and pushback from health officials, who questioned its efficacy. And its takeoff sputtered in the U.S., where it’s managed state by state rather than by the federal government. The digital tools are only effective if many people opt in and actually use them.
The COVID-19 Technology Task Force, the nonprofit running the campaign, is working with the government on coordinating the tech industry’s response. The group hopes the Biden administration will focus on rolling out a country-wide exposure notification system. To date, the group says adoption has been strong in California, Colorado, Maryland and Connecticut.
That stands in stark contrast to several European countries, where the tools were more widely promoted by governments and adopted by citizens. In the United Kingdom, officials released a study last week estimating the NHS COVID-19 app has stopped the spread of 600,000 coronavirus cases after directing more than 1.7 million people since September to isolate due to exposure. Researchers at the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University found for every 1 percent increase in app users, the number of coronavirus cases can be reduced by 2.3 percent.
Google and Apple initially did little to use their massive advertising power to raise awareness of the tools.
The the companies’ backing of the campaign is a shift, after they largely didn’t use their hefty advertising budgets or high-profile product events to raise awareness. Task force members including Ron Conway, John Borthwick and Fred Wilson also contributed funding fir the campaign. iHeartMedia, Spotify, United Airlines, ViacomCBS and WPP also provided financial support or are helping distribute the ads.