If you got an anonymous text saying you'd been exposed to COVID-19, would you trust it? Experts assess new tool

Healthcare workers administer free Covid-19 tests to people in their cars in the parking lot of the Columbus West Family Health and Wellness Center in Columbus, Ohio on November 19, 2020. (Photo by Stephen Zenner / AFP) (Photo by STEPHEN ZENNER/AFP via Getty Images)
An online tool allows people with COVID-19 to anonymously notify others that they’ve been exposed to the virus. But will it help with contact tracing and testing efforts? (Photo by Stephen Zenner/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a new tool in the fight against COVID-19, and it’s a slightly different take on contact tracing. Dubbed Not Jolly, the online tool allows people with COVID-19 to anonymously notify others that they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“Do you want to let people know you’ve been exposed to COVID but not risk getting publicly shamed? The team spun up a tool to anonymously notify people to isolate and get tested. Check it out,” reads a tweet from a developer behind the project.

The tweet also features a short video that walks people through the tool. Here’s how it works: Once you go to NotJolly.co, you create a login and password, and then enter in the phone numbers of people you think you exposed to the virus to send a standard message that lets them know they may have been exposed. It also includes a link to the nearest COVID-19 testing facility. Then hit send, and the anonymous message is transmitted.

While some people in the comments section praised the application, others were concerned about the potential for abuse. “What’s to stop me from using it to mess with my enemies? Everything about this tool feels not good,” one person wrote.

New York Times culture and technology reporter Taylor Lorenz also expressed concerns about the lack of transparency. “It’s people’s responsibility to be transparent with their identity so that those exposed have proper context to know who THEY could have exposed since. Stripping that info puts ppl at risk,” she wrote.

Others questioned whether there is even a need for this tool. “No one publicly shames people for getting Covid. They publicly shame those doing all the things that guarantee they’ll get it and exposing others to that risk,” one person tweeted.

The creators of Not Jolly did not immediately respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

Despite criticism, experts say there is a need for this kind of tool. Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeartRadio, tells Yahoo Life that there is still a stigma attached to testing positive for COVID-19, with some people assuming that the infected were careless. As a result, she says, people are more likely to share their COVID-19 status if they can do so anonymously. “As illogical as it may seem, people fear being judged for having and infecting others with COVID-19,” she says. “They fear the contact will be angry with them. They fear being shamed.”

At the same time, Saltz says, “they know they should let the contact know. If they could do so anonymously, they may be more likely to.”

Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that the tool is a “fine idea,” if only to help speed up the contact tracing process. Given that contact tracing can take time to reach people who have potentially been exposed to the virus, a tool like this “in many cases would be the earliest possible indication that someone might have been exposed,” Gonsenhauser says.

But Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that it’s important for people to know who they contracted the virus from — if that can even be figured out at this point — to try to help them discover who they might have exposed. “I don’t think [the tool] is all that useful,” he says.

Watkins also has concerns that the notification isn’t coming from a widely known organization and, as a result, may not be trusted by recipients. The anonymity factor can also be an issue. “Getting it anonymously will likely cause stress and might cause people to wonder if it is really true,” he says.

So far, tech has not been overly successful in helping to stop the spread of the virus, John Sellick, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “There are a number of apps, including those developed by health authorities,” he says. “Their performance is uncertain and there are persistent concerns about confidentiality of your personal info.” In fact, he notes, “many Asian countries have tried these and many have stopped pushing them.”

One app, Corona 100m, was hugely popular in South Korea when the pandemic first began. It collects data from public government sources to alert users of any diagnosed COVID-19 patient within a 100-meter radius, as well as information about the patient’s diagnosis date, age, gender and prior location, according to MarketWatch. Another, called TraceTogether, was encouraged by the government of Singapore at the start of the pandemic. This app uses Bluetooth data to help conduct contact tracing and alert people of possible exposure.

While experts say the technology isn’t quite there in regard to passing on news of a COVID-19 exposure, they do note that, if you have COVID-19, it’s important to let people you’ve been in contact with know they’ve been exposed. “The more people can be aware of potential exposures, the better,” Gonsenhauser says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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