Privacy-first from the start: The backstory behind your exposure notification app

Since last fall, I’ve been fascinated by exposure notification apps. These phone applications use Bluetooth to track people’s close contacts and inform them when a contact has tested positive for COVID-19. As I wrote back in October, though, data on the apps are few and far between, leaving me with a lot of questions about how many people actually have these apps on their phones—and how well they’re working at preventing COVID-19 spread. This week, I put those questions to Jenny Wanger, co-founder of the TCN Coalition and Director of Programs at the Linux Foundation of Public Health.

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Where are we most likely to catch COVID-19?

This week, I wrote a story for Popular Science that goes over what we know (and don’t know) about the most common settings for COVID-19 infection. The story allowed me to revisit a database on superspreading events and issues with a lack of contact tracing data in the U.S.

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Was the Capitol invasion a superspreader event?

Like everyone else, I spent Wednesday afternoon watching rioters attack the nation’s Capitol. I was horrified by the violence and the ease with which these extremists took over a seat of government, of course, but a couple of hours in, another question arose: did this coup spread COVID-19?

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We need better contact tracing data

The majority of states do not collect or report detailed information on how their residents became infected with COVID-19. This type of information would come from contact tracing, in which public health workers call up COVID-19 patients to ask about their activities and close contacts. Contact tracing has been notoriously lacking in the U.S. due to limited resources and cultural pushback.

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Your Thanksgiving could be a superspreading event

Between 10% and 20% of people infected with COVID-19 are responsible for 80% of the virus’ spread. Scientists are learning to better understand COVID-19 spread by keeping tabs on those instances where one person infects many, which they call superspreading events. While research continues about the underlying biology driving who is infectious and who isn’t, investigating the events in which people get infected can help us better understand how to protect ourselves and our communities.

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Contact tracing: Too little, too late, no public data

Contact tracing, or the practice of limiting disease spread by personally informing people that they have been exposed, has been a major method for controlling COVID-19 spread in other countries, such as South Korea. But in the U.S. the strategy is—like every other part of our nation’s COVID-19 response—incredibly patchwork. We have no national contact tracing app, much less a national contact tracing workforce, leaving states to set up these systems on their own.

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I am once again asking: why are journalists doing this?

The COVID-19 At The White House Contact Tracker is attempting to trace over 200 contacts in connection with the President and his staff, after the President tested positive for COVID-19. The team behind it includes Benjy Renton, independent reporter on COVID-19 in higher education, Peter Walker, data visualization lead at the COVID Tracking Project, and Jesse O’Shea, MD, infectious disease expert at Emory University.

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