City of Somerville pilots Mass. contact tracing software

An iPhone shows exposure notifications set for the Massachusetts region. Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily

The City of Somerville is one of two Massachusetts cities engaged in a pilot program of MassNotify, Massachusetts’ implementation of smartphone exposure notification software, which began on April 5. Methuen is the other city participating in MassNotify’s pilot.

The technology, developed by Apple and Google in April 2020 as the Exposure Notifications System, utilizes Bluetooth technology to determine if an individual has been in close physical proximity for more than 15 minutes to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

If participating users test positive for COVID-19, they can choose to share that information with the application, which will then notify any other participating individual who has been in close contact with the user who tested positive.

According to the Massachusetts state website, no location data or personal information is ever shared with Google, Apple, Massachusetts or any other users. The system protects user privacy by exchanging random codes between participating devices via Bluetooth. These codes change every 15 minutes and are stored securely by the operating system.

According to Doug Kress, Somerville’s director of health and human services, the technology has already been implemented in many places across the world. The United States has only recently begun to see some adoption of the Exposure Notifications System.

Kress believes a potential reason for the gap between Apple and Google’s release of the Exposure Notifications Technology and Massachusetts’ implementation of it comes from a lack of knowledge about the technology.

“I think the biggest setback was we didn’t understand the technology,” Kress said. “I think a lot of people were concerned about the potential privacy [issues].”

According to Kress, Somerville and Methuen residents are currently the only groups whose COVID-19-positive status can be confidentially shared with close contacts. However, anyone in Massachusetts can enable the MassNotify technology on their smartphone and receive notification of their exposure. Kress anticipates statewide rollout in the near future.

“If you don’t live in Somerville, but you were exposed to someone who tested positive in Somerville, you would still get that … notification that you were in exposure,” Kress said.

Tufts University is currently engaged in a review of the usefulness of MassNotify to its testing and tracing system.

“We are looking at MassNotify as a promising tool that might fit within our overall program along with other measures, such as masking, social distancing, testing and our current tracing program,” Dr. Michael Jordan, university infection control health director, and Chris Sedore, vice president and chief information officer, wrote in an email to the Daily.

Jordan and Sedore are currently looking at potential complications with the technology that could arise in a college campus setting, where many students live in close proximity to one another in residence halls. This raises the concern that the technology may have difficulty differentiating between these close contacts.

“We will continue to look at these questions to determine if, how and when MassNotify might fit within Tufts’ testing and tracing program, which will continue in some fashion in the fall,” Jordan and Sedore said. 

All residents of Massachusetts who are 16 years or older became eligible for COVID-19 vaccination on April 19. Despite this development, which may signal a nearing end to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kress emphasized that it is still crucial to use all available tools, including MassNotify, to decrease infection and transmission rates across the Commonwealth.

“I think that because more and more people are intermingling, and we see more and more people who are letting some of their guards down … there’s a higher risk of potential exposures,” Kress said.

Kress sees MassNotify not only as a beneficial tool in battling COVID-19 infection and transmission rates, but also as a healthy reminder to users who may have become more relaxed after over a year’s worth of restrictions.

“This is something that’s going to help us be able to inform people that they may have been exposed,” Kress said. “It’s also a slight reminder for everybody to say, ‘Wow, I get this pandemic is still here and I need to be careful.’”

Residents of Massachusetts with devices running either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating systems can activate the system, which will only become fully active in all locations once the pilot program ends. IOS users can activate MassNotify in their iPhone’s settings app under “Exposure Notifications.” Android users must download additional software from the Google Play Store.

Kress believes that since smartphones are widely used, MassNotify’s ease of access and utilization of widespread technology may be extremely beneficial to Massachusetts government officials and residents throughout the rest of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“This is a very simple tool … this is a simple thing,” Kress said. “Everybody can [opt in] to help slow the spread of this virus, where they only have to do it once, and they don’t have to think about it again … It’s a simple way to get that reminder to help get that message out to get people to test, isolate and slow the spread of this virus.”