fb-pixel Skip to main content

Most Americans are not willing or able to use an app tracking coronavirus infections

A smartphone app now being used in North and South Dakota as part of statewide efforts to ramp up contact tracing for people infected with the coronavirus. New York Times

Nearly three in five Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert system under development by Google and Apple, suggesting that it will be difficult to persuade enough people to use the app to make it effective against the coronavirus pandemic, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds.

The two tech giants are working with public health authorities and university researchers to produce apps that would notify users who had come in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. The initiative has been portrayed as a way to enhance traditional forms of contact tracing to find potential new infections and help make resumption of economic and social activities safer in the months ahead.


But the effort faces several major barriers, including that approximately one in six Americans do not have smartphones, which would be necessary for running any apps produced by the initiative. Rates of smartphone ownership are much lower among seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, with just over half of those 65 or older saying that they have a smartphone (53 percent). Rates are even lower for those 75 and older.

The findings were released Wednesday shortly before Apple and Google said they were delivering the ‘‘first seeds’’ of their collaboration to developers and public-health agencies around the world.

Among the 82 percent of Americans who do have smartphones, willingness to use an infection-tracing app is split evenly, with 50 percent saying they definitely or probably would use such an app and an equal percentage saying they probably or definitely would not. Willingness runs highest among Democrats and people reporting they are worried about a COVID-19 infection making them seriously ill. Resistance is higher among Republicans and people reporting a lower level of personal worry about getting the virus.


Despite reservations about the technology, 59 percent of smartphone users said they would ‘‘be comfortable’’ using such an app, if they tested positive for COVID-19, to anonymously alert others that they may have been exposed and should seek testing.

A major source of skepticism about the infection-tracing app is distrust of Google, Apple, and tech companies generally, with a majority expressing doubts about whether they would protect the privacy of health data. A 57 percent majority of smartphone users report having a ‘‘great deal’’ or a ‘‘good amount’’ of trust in public health agencies and 56 percent trust in universities. That compares with 47 percent who trust health insurance companies and 43 percent who trust tech companies like Google and Apple.

Among Americans overall, 41 percent say they both have a smartphone and are willing to use an infection-tracking app, the poll finds. Oxford University researchers have suggested that 60 percent of a country’s population would need to use a coronavirus-tracking app to stop the viral spread.

Apple and Google said the underlying software would depend on local health agencies developing their own apps and alerting people to download and use them. The companies said Wednesday that they had begun delivering the first elements of the software to developers working with public health authorities around the world.