Harris ’20 Coordinates COVID Contact Tracing with PA App

By Caitlin Burns | December 22, 2020

In 2014, A-Mac Harris ’20MPH saw how an epidemic can devastate an area when his home country of Liberia had an outbreak of Ebola. The loss of his close friend during this time inspired his interest in Public Health, which brought Harris to Arcadia University in 2018. 

Harris, who earned his Master in Public Health degree last spring, signed on in October as contact tracing coordinator with the new Pennsylvania COVID Alert App run by the state’s Department of Health. In this role, he helps software developers evaluate the health care side of the app: How is this tool going to be used? What services are being provided? What policies and procedures need to be followed?

“Contact tracing was so overwhelmed before the app that the team couldn’t get to all the contacts of positive Covid cases,” said Harris about why the app launched in September. “Most people remember close friends and families, but there are a bunch of people they might have been exposed to at the grocery store or on public transportation who cannot be traced. The app creates a way to identify these individuals that you were exposed or that you exposed to Covid anonymously.”

Harris has used his public health background to review research data and has assisted developers in understanding how people are using the app and what changes need to be made. In November, the app launched its second version based on the recommendations from the user experience data gathered through the app and additional research.

Harris said that privacy was the most important factor when creating the app. It uses bluetooth technology in mobile phones to ping between devices to alert users if someone they have been near was diagnosed with Covid-19. The diagnosis is completely voluntary and anonymous, and no personal information is shared between devices.

“Because of this app, we have been able to identify individuals who would have otherwise not gone to get tested or would have not gone through isolation because they had no idea they had been exposed,” said Harris. “It is a success story on our part and we’re very excited about it.”

The app has over 650,000 downloads to date, and works with Apple or Android phones. It also communicates with other state apps if a user has been exposed to Covid-19 from someone out-of-state.