Contact tracing apps now cover almost half of America. It’s not too late to use one.

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Can these apps help you? At the start of the pandemic, apps that warn of potential covid-19 exposures were promoted as a way to contain transmission, and countries like Singapore and Australia launched their services in the spring (although Early adopters had problems too). But without a coordinated national effort in the United States, states created a patchwork of systems that kicked off at staggered times and that didn’t necessarily work across local borders. The first wave of U.S. apps launched in August, months after those in other parts of the world, and in some areas, they’re coming after large-scale community transmission has already taken place. In California, the most populous state in the United States, cases are on the rise, for example, and most people are under orders to stay home.

At this point in the pandemic, experts say it’s too late for these apps to dramatically reduce transmission on their own. But the software is still useful for protecting you personally and knowing when you should get tested. As vaccinations begin and cases decline again, experts say they will be even more important.

“At the individual level, in fact, it is more important now than three months ago, because there are many more viruses circulating in the community than three months ago”, says Rajeev Venkayya, who helped draft the United States’ first national pandemic preparedness strategy in 2005.

Julie Samuels led the task force that developed the New York State app. She puts it this way: “In American society, people are really looking for a quick fix – the only thing we can do to stop covid. The way to think about the app is that it’s an extra layer of protection. If that still prevents one more person from becoming covid, isn’t it worth it?

—Additional report by Lindsay Muscato

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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