Exclusive by Dan Conifer
ABC News: Kevin Nguyen
People in New South Wales will be alerted within the state's check-in app if they have been to a COVID-19 exposure site.
The ABC has been given the first look at the new feature, which launched within the Service NSW mobile app on Thursday.
The alert will initially be shown under a user's check-in history, which lists the venues they have visited over the past four weeks.
A red icon showing the words 'COVID-19 case alert' will appear under the name of the venue deemed an exposure site.
Users will then be directed to a website for more information about the steps they need to take, such as isolating and getting tested.
"Instead of having to go to a website … and check it every day to see if they've been to a venue … it will automatically appear on their histories," Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello said.
"As soon as we get notified of a venue of concern, we can automatically populate your history," he said.
Checking in using the Service NSW app has been mandatory at workplaces and retail businesses since July.
A further software update, expected over coming weeks, will display the alerts immediately when people open the app.
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"If you make things easier for people, they will use it, and that means there's less pressure on compliance officials," he said.
"It's all about protecting public health, and if we can get people information faster … that's going to help our contact tracers and put downward pressure on the health system."
Mr Dominello said notifications via the app would be the "starting point" for alerting contacts, with health officials also sending text messages or calling people, if it were deemed necessary.
Service NSW is also considering the use of push notifications, which would alert users even when the app was not open.
Coronavirus cases are expected to soar over coming weeks when NSW and other states reopen, but among well-vaccinated populations.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week said the definition of a close contact would change once the state hit 70 and 80 per cent double-dose vaccination rates.
But health officials nationwide are still working out exactly how close contacts should be defined, what role vaccination status will play, and what action will be required of contacts regarding isolation and testing.
Victor Dominello is keen to avoid a situation where people are sent too many notifications and begin to ignore the app.
ABC News: Shaun Kingma
"If people realise that the government's being reasonable … then that builds trust," he said.
Mr Dominello said he believed checking in should become voluntary in low-risk settings, such as cafes and pubs, as soon as double-dose vaccine rates were high enough.
"I think the QR codes should be retired once we get to the 90 per cent mark, subject to health advice," he said.
"Ultimately it will be a voluntary thing; you may want to use them for your own protection; businesses may want to use them.
"And there [will be] some businesses that must have them, for example, nursing homes."
During the month of July in England and Wales, the UK health service app sent more than 2 million alerts telling people to isolate.
The period became known as the 'pingdemic', caused widespread disruption in the economy, and many Britons began to ignore or delete the app.
It will not be possible for contact tracers to interview every positive case and manually reach their close contacts once lockdowns ease and COVID-19 becomes widespread in the community.
States and territories are preparing for automation to play a greater role in contact tracing efforts.
The ACT's Check In CBR app shows people when they open the app if they have been to an exposure site, and includes an alert in their check-in history.
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"Their Check In CBR history will show whether that's a close contact site, a casual contact site, or a site where they just need to monitor for symptoms and get tested," ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said.
The ACT Government's software is also used by Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
The app will soon be updated to send exposure site information via push notifications.
Ms Stephen-Smith said technology would play "a really big role" in the COVID-19 response going forward.
ABC News: Ian Cutmore
"I think we'll see a greater reliance on automation … where people get automatically contacted," she said.
"Maybe they get directed to some information on a website about what they need to do next, and there's a reliance on them to actually take that action themselves, rather than the contact tracing team getting directly involved in their case, if it's not deemed to be particularly high-risk."
She said one way of determining the risk associated with a positive COVID-19 case and their contacts could be to automatically send questionnaires.
The answers would help determine whether contact tracers need to follow up with the infected person, along with informing the steps the contacts need to take.
"I think that's something that our public health experts are going to be grappling with over the next little while, to understand all of the different risk factors that are going to go into decision-making."
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