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U.S. states are turning to a private Irish company to help stop the spread of COVID

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Before the coronavirus pandemic, NearForm, an enterprise software company headquartered in the tiny southeastern Irish seaside town of Tramore, helped some of the most recognizable brands in the world—from Uber to Condé Nast—make quick digital transformations.

When COVID-19 hit and the Irish government needed a technology company with a reputation for being quick and nimble to build a contact tracing app in March, NearForm jumped at the chance to help.

The company’s software engineers, who were all used to working remotely even before the pandemic, created COVID Tracker, a decentralized app that keeps users anonymous but alerts them if they’ve crossed paths with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus in the past two weeks. With a 35% adoption rate, it has been such a success story in Ireland that versions are now being used in four U.S. states, with many more expressing interest. 

“From getting back to life as we would like it to be, we have to get the transmission rates down so we can control and ultimately quash the virus. That’s our primary aim,” Larry Breen, NearForm’s chief commercial officer told Fortune. “The sooner we reduce those numbers, we get to open up our economies, our businesses, shops, and sports.”

In the past month, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York launched COVID Alert apps built in partnership with NearForm. The entire process, from building to deploying the app for each new government client, takes less than 30 days, according to the company. 

It’s also relatively cost effective, which has caught the attention of other state governments, according to Breen. New York’s app cost $700,000 to build and deploy. By comparison, the German government spent $22.5 million to fund the development of its own contact tracing app, the Associated Press reported.

How contact tracing apps work

Contact tracing apps use the Bluetooth signal from a person’s smartphone to send anonymized keys to other people who also have exposure notification apps. 

“If another app user spends 10 minutes within six feet of you, your phones swap random codes to remember the contact. These codes don’t say anything about you or your location,” NearForm explained during the setup process for the COVID Alert NY app. 

Those keys, which are randomly generated numbers, are stored in a national server by the Association of Public Health Laboratories. If someone using the New York app reports he tested positive for coronavirus, anyone running the app who was near him recently will receive an alert with guidance to quarantine and get tested. NearForm said each anonymous key deletes itself after 14 days as an added layer of privacy protection.

Each state has had a patchwork of regulations, from reopening timelines to mask mandates, but the technology the app is built on seeks to make contact tracing apps interoperable across state lines.

In April, Google and Apple formed a rare partnership to create an open source API for exposure notifications, allowing companies such as NearForm to build apps using the API that don’t track a person’s movements, but are effective when it comes to breaking the chains of transmission.

Since NearForm’s app runs on the Gapple API, that means it can work with any other app built using the same code, even if a competing company makes it. 

“The actual open source code sits underneath [the app] and the reports and findings and makes it publicly available,” Breen said. “Anybody with concerns is free to look.”

While NearForm initially focused on creating a centralized app, Breen said it pivoted to a decentralized approach using the tech giants’ API so the company could ensure its app would have the most profound impact on public health.

Can NearForm’s success abroad be replicated in the U.S.?

Getting people to wear a mask is still hard enough in some states, but encouraging them to download and use an app that tracks their movements, even if it’s anonymously, is an entirely new obstacle.

“Citizen adoption is one of the biggest barriers. There’s this trepidation of, ‘Am I giving away data?’” Breen said. “The more we can get consistent messaging out there about how this can affect change and save lives and start moving the country or the state back to some level of normality and take away the confusion, we can get people to more actively engage.”

Last week, more than 105,000 people downloaded New Jersey’s app, just days after it launched. In New York, there were at least 500,000 downloads days after the state’s app was available to the public. Pennsylvania reported 300,000 downloads since its app launched on Sept. 24.

“By utilizing this technology, we can quickly notify more people who have been exposed to COVID-19. This innovative solution enhances our COVID-19 response and gives residents another tool to stay calm, stay alert, and stay safe all in the palm of their hands,” Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine told Fortune. “This is a simple, secure way that each and every one of us can unite together to help protect our communities from COVID-19.”

While it’s solid progress, the downloads represent just a small percentage of each state’s population. By comparison, NearForm’s app was downloaded by 25% of the Irish population 36 hours after its launch in July and now has more than 35% adoption across the country’s population of 4.9 million people.

“We have people now who are doubting the advice they hear from public health agencies. Will people trust a contact tracing app?” said Alok Patel, a hospital physician in San Francisco and a medical journalist. “These apps have to be very clear, not just about privacy and data, but by also sharing quality information about why the app is important and how contact tracing can help break the chains of transmission.”

Even if the contact tracing apps are only as good as the portion of a population using them, a study published last month in MedRxiv found they can make a difference. If just 15% of the population of Washington State downloaded contact tracing apps and actively reported their symptoms, digital alerts could reduce COVID infections by 8% and deaths by 6%, according to the study, which was written by tech researchers and a team of academics.

Breen said NearForm has been receiving calls from governments around the world, including more U.S. states, that want to explore the possibility of launching their own contact tracing apps. As of Friday, a review of the app stores found there were just 14 states with contact tracing apps, including pilots from Arizona and California.

“Contact tracing with an app is also one extra part of all the other mitigation strategies we have,” Patel said. “If you have an app, manual contact tracing, masks, physical distancing, testing strategies, all those together will help prevent future outbreaks and ultimately help us reopen our economy, get back to the office and some sense of normalcy.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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7 Books For Maximizing Life Satisfaction During Uncertain Times

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You can develop a philosophy by drawing from the perspectives of others.

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Warner Bros. Television Group Appoints Black Woman TV Executive As New Chairman

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Days after Peter Roth announced that he was stepping down as chair of the Warner Bros. Television Group, the entertainment giant appointed veteran TV executive Channing Dungey to lead the studio as its new chairman.

The news comes as Dungey, who has worked as an industry leader for decades, recently stepped down from her role as VP of original content and head of drama at Netflix after less than two years. Prior to Netflix, she became the first Black woman executive to run one of the big four networks during her time at ABC. During her stint at ABC, Dungey was responsible for shows, including “The Good Doctor,” the revival of “American Idol” and the reboot of “Roseanne,” which was canceled in 2018 after star Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet that Dungey called “repugnant,” reports ABC.

“The Warner Bros.Television Group is the recognized industry leader in content creation and a true destination for talent based on its ability to produce across all genres and for all outlets,” said Dungey in a press statement sent to BLACK ENTERPRISE.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the company at such a pivotal time in its history and look forward to working with my new colleagues at Warner Bros. and across the Studios and Networks Group to build on the incredible work of my predecessor, Peter Roth. This is such an electric time in our industry, and we have so much opportunity available to us between Warner Bros.’ core businesses and HBO Max, I cannot wait to dive in.”

In her new role, Dungey will oversee several divisions of the television conglomerate including HBO, HBO MAX, Cartoon Network, TBS, TNT, and numerous others. Her new role starts in early 2021.

“This is a homecoming of sorts for Channing, who was a production executive at Warner Bros. early in her career, and we’re excited to have her rejoin the studio,” said Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, in a press statement.

“Channing is one of the most talented, visionary, creative and respected executives working in television today,” Sarnoff added. “She has impeccable taste, a breadth of experience covering all platforms and genres, incredible relationships across the creative community, and a keen sense of what’s next and how best to get it to audiences. She’s a great choice to lead the Television Group as it continues to grow its production operations for HBO Max, while also maintaining its standing as the industry’s leading independent supplier of programming to all outlets.”

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How Trump could repeat his 2016 upset in Pennsylvania

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You might yawn and click on for deeper election punditry if I told you that a prominent Republican consultant in Pennsylvania predicts that Trump will pull an upset victory that surpasses his miracle win there in 2016. But Charlie Gerow is so well tuned to the ebbs and flows of momentum in every corner of the Keystone State, from the soccer sidelines in the Philadelphia suburbs to the saloons of the fracking patch, that it’s well worth hearing why he believes Trump’s poor poll numbers way understate his chances.

“I’d say we’re where we were four years ago, maybe slightly better,” Gerow told me. “Of course, an incumbent should be very far ahead at this stage if they’re going to win. But Trump’s a special case. I believe there’s a significant under-vote that doesn’t show up in the polls. A lot of Trump supporters don’t want to be visible.”

Gerow adds that the polls aren’t catching the surging enthusiasm for Trump in the state’s western oil tier. “These counties that were traditionally rock-ribbed Democratic are registering Republicans, a sign of a Trump victory bigger than last time,” he says. “It’s hard to fathom the support for Trump in the western region until you see the yard signs and talk to the folks in the bars and after church.”

Gerow served on Ronald Reagan’s staff during all three of his presidential runs, and worked as a surrogate for George G.W. and George W. Bush on their campaigns for the White House. I first met Gerow by chance one evening at the New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, where he was dining with his former boss Ed Rollins, Reagan’s top political lieutenant during his first term. Rollins regaled us with stories about how Nancy Reagan would spend the day calling her wealthy socialite friends in New York and Washington to glean gossip they’d heard at galas and cocktail parties on schemers planting stories to undermine her husband or his favorite aides; then she’d pepper the political team with warnings of alleged plots and plotters. (Rollins is now a partner in Gerow’s firm, Quantum Communications, based in Harrisburg.)

Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,300 votes, or 0.57% of the total, in 2016, notching the first Republican victory in the state in 28 years. Gerow notes that Hilary Clinton carried the five heavily populated counties that encompass Philadelphia and its suburbs––Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks––by 70% to 30%, gaining a 660,000-vote margin out of the total of 6 million cast. Three other urban counties also went to the Clinton column: Allegheny, Lackawanna and Dauphin, respectively homes to Pittsburgh, Scranton and Harrisburg. Trump actually did worse than Mitt Romney in the Philly suburbs, losing Chester, a Republican win in 2012, by 10 points. His coup was taking 56 of 67 counties, sweeping the rural and rust belt corridors, by 58.3% to 41.7%, amassing 250,000 more votes outside the cities and major suburbs than Romney captured four years earlier.

As Gerow points out, the hurdle for Trump is once again garnering a gigantic margin in blue collar and rural communities to offset his big deficits in the metros. The polls are predicting he can’t do it. “I’d say he’s the same or a bit weaker than the last time in Philadelphia and the suburbs,” he says. “But he’s much stronger in the southwest.”

Trump is big in ‘The T’

Gerow predicts that Trump will win five counties in the region south of Pittsburgh––Washington, Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland and Cambria, home to Johnstown––by a wider margin than his 66% win in 2016. He thinks that he’ll also outrace 2016 in the northern farming and forestry tier, known as “The T.”

The southwestern counties form an industrial belt loaded with healthcare and defense manufacturers where Trump’s “America first” trade policies, Gerow says, resonate strongly. “Those were traditional, rock-ribbed Democratic strongholds until the last couple of elections, and Trump has gone much farther than past Republican candidates in turning them red,” says the operative. Trump also flipped Erie County in 2016, and Gerow thinks he’ll expand his 1.5% margin there this year.

Nothing exemplified the 2016 reversal of fortunes better than Trump’s showing in Luzerne County, whose largest town is Wilkes-Barre. The area’s economy was pummeled by the fall of anthracite coal mining, but has rebounded as a hub for distribution centers. In 2012, Romney lost Luzerne by five points. Four years, Trump won by 19%, scoring a 24 point reversal. Gerow believes Trump will win by more this time. He also reckons that Trump’s blue collar wave will capture Lackawanna County, which encompasses Scranton—the city where Joe Biden was born, and that Trump narrowly lost in 2016.

Gerow cites fracking as perhaps the biggest issue in Trump’s favor. “Biden and Harris have flip-flopped on fracking, and voters think that based on their past opposition, they’re fibbing when they say they won’t ban it,” he says. “Their position isn’t lost on a state where several hundred thousand jobs depend on safe development of natural gas.” The roustabouts, rig operators, and mud loggers of the fracking region, he observes, aren’t inclined to the Green New Deal. Gerow also believes that African-American voters in the cities will vote for Trump in much bigger numbers “than the national media would ever think.”

Most of all, Gerow thinks that voters respond more to symbolism than to policies, and Trump is projecting a far more powerful, energetic image than Biden. “The physical difference is a huge plus for a president,” he says. “I’ve worked for three presidents, and after their first term, they’ve all looked a hell of a lot worse. They all get weighed down by the gravity of the office.” He marvels that Trump lives on junk food, doesn’t exercise, and grows ever more overweight, and yet “He thrives on the combat. You may hate him, but he’s the only president who looks better than four years ago.”

Trump’s energy level also astounds this political veteran. “You can say what you want about Trump, but he’s got more stamina than most 20 year olds. After the bout with COVID, he was chomping at the bit to get out. Now he’s buzzing all over the place.” For Gerow, the image of a robust Trump raging at rowdy nightly rallies “connects with voters as no words can.”

Trump’s now trailing by 4.4% in the RealClear Politics average of Pennsylvania polls. But he’s gained 2.7 points from his 7.1% deficit from October 7 to 14. Gerow is predicting a super-close, “knife edge” race that Trump will win by a hair more than the last time. No mystery in politics is more compelling than how the pull of Pennsylvania’s cities and suburbs versus the push of the farming and industrial regions, so closely matched, will play out on November 3.

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