App use ‘can halve COVID-19 second wave’

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Australians can help to significantly curb a second wave of COVID-19 infections by signing up to mobile contact tracing, according to a new study into the spread of the coronavirus. 

With social distancing and testing rates both declining as restrictions have eased, researchers at the Sax Institute found that an increased use of the COVIDSafe smartphone app could halve new cases.

Their model – based on May’s statistical pandemic trends in Australia – showed if 61 percent of the population downloaded it onto their phones, the number of infections in a second wave would be 55 percent lower than if there were no app. 

However, by May 20 only 27 percent of people had signed up, meaning predictions of 24 percent fewer cases between April and December 2020.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health Research & Practice at the end of June, just as Victoria experienced a new spike in infections.

It concluded that restrictions on travel and social interaction may need to be reintroduced if distancing, testing and app-assisted tracing measures are not applied effectively. 

“Testing and social distancing will exert the biggest influence on controlling the curve of the second wave, but the tracking app can play a very important role,” Sax Institute’s senior adviser Dr Michael Frommer said. 

“At our current uptake levels, the app will help with contact tracing, but not significantly. 

“What our work shows is that if we can push uptake to around three-fifths of the population, then it will make a huge difference. It would halve the number of people getting COVID-19 in the event of a second wave and decrease the death rate as well,” he added.

Private hospitals have been helping to promote the app, with Ramsay Health Care encouraging staff at its nationwide facilities to use it – while one nurse found herself in a starring role in the government’s awareness campaign.

Sandra Begg of Armidale Private Hospital in New South Wales’ Northern Tablelands said she was shocked but thrilled to see her face being used to promote COVIDSafe in newspapers across the country.

“I had no idea they were going to use my image – I picked up the newspaper and I’m reading it and said to my husband, ‘I’m in the paper’, and next thing my sons in Melbourne and Sydney, and my sister and parents in Queensland, were all calling, saying ‘Yep you’re in the paper here too’,” she said.

Mrs Begg, a registered nurse for more than 20 years, said she was pleased Ramsay had embraced the app as an employer, while she and her colleagues had also encouraged patients to use it.  

“I think it’s a great app. I had already downloaded it and had it on my phone. I think it’s a really great idea.

“I feel very inspired by the way Ramsay has handled the whole thing. The app helps to protect everyone and it’s a huge peace of mind. The leadership really has been fantastic,” she said.

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