Berlin. With over 40 million downloads, the federal government’s official Corona warning app is one of the most successful digital tools worldwide to contain the corona pandemic. Almost 1.3 million infected people in Germany used the app to warn of high-risk encounters. For example, timely testing for those affected is aimed at preventing further spread of the virus. But despite this success story, the criticism of the concept and the concrete implementation does not stop. In the summer of 2020, when it was launched, the question was why the app was coming so late and why the SAP and Deutsche Telekom groups were allowed to collect millions for development and operation. In the meantime, however, the main question is whether the app can fulfill its actual purpose, namely to make a significant contribution to containing the pandemic.
Alert users are eligible for a free trial
More than a year ago, there were doubts about the warning function. In December 2020, the makers changed the contact calculation algorithm to determine more precisely which encounters should be counted. As a result of the change, the display of many low-risk encounters disappeared because they played no role in containing the infection chains. However, a number of users concluded that the app had discontinued its guard function and uninstalled the apparently useless application. The current Omicron Wave now triggers the opposite effect. Many users are now constantly being shown the red tile with the warning “Increased risk” because tens of thousands are newly infected with the virus every day and also enter the positive test result in the app. On the app’s Twitter channel, users were recently asked to briefly switch off the risk assessment in the test center: This prevents many unnecessary warnings on the day, it said. If you follow the recommendations of the federal government, users with a red warning message would have to report to their family doctor or the local health department. “They decide how to proceed based on possible symptoms of the disease.” If there is a warning about an increased risk, there is a right to a free test (PCR test or antigen test). This also applies to fully vaccinated people.
Minister of Health does not question the effectiveness of the app
But Federal Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also suspects how difficult it will be in these days and weeks to fully implement this official recommendation, because at least the health authorities and PCR test centers are hopelessly overloaded. After all, the qualified doctor is satisfied with simpler measures: “If a test is ordered here, an antigen test, or you at least do it yourself, then you can significantly slow down the pandemic,” he said on Tuesday. “Especially if there are a lot of warnings that then lead to tests, then that is a very important building block for slowing down the galloping pandemic.” The minister therefore does not question the app either: “The Corona-Warn-App is now doing its job “, he said. This also applies if she often strikes because of Omicron. “The app works and works – especially in this phase of the pandemic. We can also see that in the download numbers, which are constantly increasing,” said a spokesman for the Corona warning app on request. The app makes an important contribution to breaking chains of infection without burdening health authorities. Words of praise also come from Nicolai Savaskan, the medical officer in the Berlin district of Neukölln, where the seven-day incidence is currently the highest nationwide at over 1500. “Compared to the beginning of the pandemic, people are dealing with the warnings much more competently,” he says. Despite the high user rate, there is no rush because of the app warnings. When it comes to arranging a test, the circumstances of the risky contact are decisive. For Savaskan, however, testing for an app warning is more of a marginal aspect: easier tracing of contacts, opportunities for health communication even after the pandemic – the medical officer is thinking in this direction. He also sees a psychological benefit for citizens in the pandemic: they could make a difference themselves.
Infectiologist criticizes content-related susceptibility of the app
The infectiologist Jana Schroeder (Foundation Mathias-Spital, Rheine) thinks it is above all the “guessing” after a warning that makes the app complicated: When exactly could a risky contact have taken place? Did you wear a mask during this time? Could the warning possibly also come from the neighbor behind the room wall? If the warnings are technically correct but prone to disruption in terms of content – for example because the mask worn safely is not taken into account – then they are less useful, says Schroeder. In principle, other concepts against Corona, such as pool testing in schools, only work well if the incidence is low. After a warning that popped up recently, Schroeder has concluded that she always wears a tight-fitting FFP2 mask in public situations, as she reports. Future warnings are then still of interest to her, “but otherwise it has no effect” because she sees herself well protected with the mask. This decision also shows that guesswork in particular could lead to people rethinking their own protective behavior. The perceived risk may also change. The app spokesman said that evaluations from 2021 suggested that an encounter with a person who was proven to be infected led to a change in behavior.
App could reach its limits in the high phase of the omicron wave
The Frankfurt epidemiologist Timo Ulrichs still finds the app useful at the moment. “When we go more and more into the peak phase of the omicron wave, this app will reach its limits,” said the researcher in an interview with Hessischer Rundfunk. The spread will then be so dense that there are few opportunities to interrupt transmission paths. The Corona warning app now benefits from the fact that it has found a permanent place on countless smartphones, not just because of its core function – identifying high-risk encounters. In the past year and a half, it has developed into a digital Swiss army knife in the fight against pandemics. The function of saving vaccination certificates, proof of recovery or test results in the app and being able to show them quickly if necessary is particularly popular. The latest version of the app can now also help to display valid vaccination or recovery certificates as well as a digital test certificate in one go. This should make it easier to provide 2G-plus proof. However, the new function still has problems with the booster vaccination. However, the programmers at SAP are already working on eliminating this problem as well.
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