Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, Pool
Everything is about the gaming industry in Nevada, even pandemic response. The Sagebrush State now has its first official COVID-19 contact-tracing app, and it was a social casino company that developed it.
Like most similar apps, COVID Trace uses an API jointly developed by Apple and Google. The technology uses Bluetooth to exchange anonymized data between nearby devices running the app. Using COVID Trace, Nevada residents and visitors can ensure that they receive an alert if someone they’ve crossed paths with tests positive for the disease, without compromising their own privacy.
The app is the work of PlayStudios, an international company headquartered in Hong Kong, with studios in California, Nevada, Texas and Israel.
Its flagship product in the US is myVEGAS. This a free casino app available for mobile devices, as well as on Facebook.
MyVegas has millions of users on the latter platform alone. Free to play, it offers the chance of winning vacations and other prizes and discounts from casino resorts including the Bellagio, Aria, MGM Grand, and Mirage.
COVID Trace is available on the iOS App Store and Google Play.
Nevada casinos contribute to both the spread of COVID and the efforts against it
For better or worse, there’s no disentangling anything that happens in Nevada from the Nevada casino industry, and the pandemic has been no exception.
Cases of COVID surged in Nevada over the summer following the reopening of casinos in early June, even as things were quieting down in other parts of the country. Now, the industry has a chance to help fix the problem it contributed to. Many of the same Strip casinos featured in myVEGAS are backing the COVID Trace effort, encouraging their guests and employees to use it.
PlayStudios created the app in partnership with the governor’s office, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, and the Nevada COVID Task Force. That last organization represents another connection between the state’s gaming industry and its pandemic response effort. Its chair is none other than Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts International. Murren left that position this March in order to lead the Task Force.
The COVID Trace development effort began with a conversation between Murren and PlayStudios’ founder Andrew Pascal. Murren’s contacts within the gaming industry have no doubt helped in enlisting private sector support for the app.
How does contact tracing work?
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven tricky to handle. One of the difficulties has been balancing public safety with individual autonomy and privacy. When one person tests positive, it’s important that others who’ve been in contact with them know about it. On the other hand, most people are understandably uncomfortable having their movements and medical history scrutinized.
Apple and Google cut that Gordian knot by developing their anonymous contact tracing API. Through the API, apps can send out periodic Bluetooth signals to locate other nearby devices running the same app. When two such devices find each other, they exchange encrypted identification keys. The design of the API is such that this information can’t be used to determine a user’s identity or track their movements.
However, when one user indicates to the app that they have tested positive, that information will propagate through the system. Anyone who has been within a few feet of them while running the app will receive a warning that they’ve been at risk of exposure.
Greater adoption of contract tracing is necessary
The API is available worldwide, but some places have been quicker to adopt it than others. Unfortunately, the system is only effective if a large percentage of people in an area are using it.
Many countries have deployed the API or similar technologies on a nationwide basis. India, which may soon surpass the US in cases of COVID, launched its app, Aarogya Setu, in May. It is now the world’s most-downloaded healthcare app, despite concerns that it has weaker privacy protection than the Google-Apple API.
Other countries, including the United Kingdom and the US, have been slower to embrace technological solutions. In the US, the only nationally-available digital solution is a simple self-diagnostic web tool from Apple. Contact tracing and other more advanced efforts have so far been on a state-by-state basis, with some universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology taking matters into their own hands on campus.
COVID Trace has been available for just over a month. Based on the number of App Store reviews and standard download-to-review ratios, OnlinePokerReport estimates that it has been installed on a few tens of thousands of devices so far.
That’s a start, but in a state with a population of 3 million, it still amounts to sparse coverage. PlayStudios and the Nevada COVID Task Force are encouraging local businesses to ask their employees to use it.
There’s still a long way to go elsewhere in the country as well. Even with the addition of Nevada, there are still only nine states with contact tracing apps based on the Apple-Google API at this time:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
Eight others are working on such apps, and still more are in the process of developing their own technologies.