Part of the problem, according to public-health experts, has been a lack of coordination by the federal government, which could have, for example, created a national digital contact-tracing solution and encouraged states to opt in. Absent direction or incentives from Washington, many states have chosen not to launch contact-tracing apps at all. Even states that have launched contact-tracing apps were initially wary of investing their limited resources in an unproven solution. Officials in New York, for example, told TIME they were interested in Google and Apple’s initial pitch as the pandemic battered the Empire State this spring, but first wanted to shore up their traditional contact-tracing program. The state eventually launched an app in early October.
Contact-tracing apps have also been slowed by state health departments’ lack of tech expertise, according to public-health officials and technologists. “From the perspective of an app developer that sat in those contracting queues in places like New York and California, states were utterly unequipped to start making procurement decisions on contact-tracing apps,” says Teddy Gold, executive director of Zero, a non-profit formed this spring to make pandemic response software. “You’d get sent from the public health department to the governor’s office, to the [chief information officer], back to a mayor’s office, back to the chief information security officer’s office. It was this Kafkaesque thing where no one had ever done this. No one had ever developed a contact-tracing app before. States don’t develop apps.” Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia’s state health commissioner, agrees. “Public-health departments around the country, their strong suit is not going to be app development,” Oliver says.