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THL recommends using Covid tracing app despite challenges

The number of Covid infections has skyrocketed, yet many Covid cases go unregistered by both the healthcare system and the app.

Phone with Koronavilkku app in use. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Covid infections in Finland are at a record high, yet most people currently learn of their diagnosis via rapid at-home tests and therefore many cases go unregistered by the healthcare system.

This means that the person who has contracted the virus does not receive a code for the Covid tracing app, Koronavilkku, and subsequently prevents the system from registering that the owner of the phone has tested positive.

Only those whose cases are officially registered receive a code. The app can only register the positive diagnosis and alert people who have been in the vicinity of the infected person once this information has been received.

Are the parameters obsolete?

According to Sami Köykkä, a consultant for Koronavilkku, the parameters that control the app's alarm, for example how far the user has been from an infected person, how long they have occupied the same space and the virus' infectivity rate, have not been updated since April 2021.

The currently dominant Omicron variant is much more contagious than previous variants, and therefore the parameters could be considered insufficient. Less than 15 minutes in the same space is needed for the infection to transmit.

"We could, of course, update the app so that it better corresponds to the current situation, but THL has to order the changes. The Koronavilkku app works exactly as before," Köykkä said.

THL: App is "no use" in Helsinki, Turku

In the current situation, Covid cases are so numerous that contact tracing has collapsed in many places, like in the Helsinki metropolitan region and the southwest city of Turku. In these areas, there is no comprehensive way to collect data for the Covid tracing app. That is not the only issue facing those who test positive, as patients also find it difficult to obtain an official Covid certificate as well as benefits from Kela.

Director of Technology and Risk Assessment for THL, Aleksi Yrttiaho, is aware of the problems.

"Right now, the Covid app is not very useful in the Helsinki region and in Turku. But in more sparsely populated parts of the country such as Lapland, the app works well, as the capacity of the healthcare system seems to be adequate there," Yrttiaho said.

The Finnish Covid app also communicates with similar apps in other European countries. Those who travel to Germany, Switzerland or Spain, for example, can keep using Koronavilkku.

"I do not recommend removing the app from your phone. Hopefully the evolution of the disease will be such that the app will eventually become obsolete. But if it takes another turn, we will continue its use," Yrttiaho added.

Why then has THL not ordered a new version, which better corresponds to the current situation?

"If we were to make the parameters stricter, in order to adapt to the contagious Omicron variant, the risk of false alarms would increase. Right now, you can at least count on truly having been exposed when the app pings," Yrttiaho said.

Number of users decreasing

At its height, two and a half million people in Finland had downloaded the Covid tracing app. Currently about one and a half million have the app on their phone. Public health authority THL sees two reasons for why there are fewer users today.

"Finns buy two million new phones every year. That amounts to 5,000 new phones a week. If you forget to log in to Koronavilkku or reinstall it on the new phone, the app will not work," Yrttiaho said.

Another reason may be a bad experiences with the app or having read something negative about it in the news or on social media.

"Every time someone writes that Koronavilkku is unnecessary or works poorly, you can see a small decrease in the number of users," he noted.

Not a costly investment, says THL

The Koronavilkku app was developed during the first half of 2020, when a budget of six million euros was allocated to it. Out of this budget, approximately two million euros has been used to create, update and maintain the app. Some funds have also gone towards marketing. The reserved budget, however, seems adequate.

"In my opinion, Koronavilkku has been very affordable," Yrttiaho said.