Virginia’s the first state to use new COVID-19 app from Apple, Google

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia has rolled out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus, becoming the first U.S. state to use new pandemic technology created by Apple and Google.

The Covidwise app was available on the tech giants’ app stores Wednesday ahead of an expected announcement from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

“We’re using every possible approach to fight this virus and keep Virginians healthy,” Northam said in a statement provided to AP that encouraged all Virginians to download the app. “The COVIDWISE app is completely anonymous, protects personal privacy, and gives you an additional tool to protect yourself and your community.”

VDH officials intentionally avoided using platforms that collect location data to protect the privacy of users. Although the project has often been referred to as a ‘contact tracing app,’ they emphasize that personal information is not actually being tracked by the state.

Jeff Stover, Executive Program Advisor to the Commissioner at the Virginia Department of Heath, explained how the technology works in a press briefing on Wednesday. When a person tests positive for the virus, he said a contact tracer will reach out and encourage them to download the app if they haven’t already. If they agree, Stover said they will be given a 6-digit pin number unique to their lab result that the user will be in charge of entering.

Once the pin is submitted, Stover said the app will notify other users of potential exposure, keeping the identity of the person who tested positive anonymous. He said the app notifies ‘close contacts’ using Bluetooth keys or ‘anonymous tokens’ that can determine which phones were within 6 feet of a positive case for 15 minutes or more–criteria based on CDC guidelines.

Stover said these phone signals are stronger when people are closer together. He compared the technology to using a Bluetooth speaker: If you walk too far away, your music stops playing.

If, for instance, there are two students in adjacent dorm rooms with a wall between them, the health department says the wall “would be expected to diminish the signal strength between devices” but a false alarm might still be triggered depending on the wall’s materials and structure.

If another user you’ve been nearby tests positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period, the app will notify you.

Stover said VDH has no way of knowing if and when a user submits a pins. The agency also has no way of knowing which phone numbers received exposure notifications. Stover added that users can download or delete the app at anytime.

It comes nearly four months after Apple and Google said they were partnering on creating app-building software for public health agencies trying to contain the spread of the pandemic. Canada and a number of European countries have already rolled out apps using the tech companies’ framework.

Those who download Virginia’s app get a message that it is “100% voluntary” and doesn’t use location-tracking technology such as GPS or collect personal information that can be used to identify someone.

Those who test positive can anonymously notify others to help stop the disease’s spread.

Previous coverage: A contact tracing app is in the works — but will Virginians use it?

A number of states have expressed interest in using the Apple-Google technology for an app, including Alabama, South Carolina, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, but until Wednesday none had publicly introduced one yet.

“Everyone is trying so hard and there’s limited time, limited capacity,” said Sameer Halia, who is working to launch an app in Arizona using the Google and Apple software. “Every state will look at what their needs are and what their population cares about and make a decision.”

Several states have rolled out apps using other approaches, such as satellite-based GPS location tracking, but there’s little evidence they have been successful. Unlike the tech companies’ model, many of these apps send data to public health officials so they can use it to trace the contacts of infected patients.

One of the first to launch, in Utah, has since disabled locating-tracking features. Rhode Island’s app uses GPS and has been downloaded by nearly 70,000 people, about 7% of the population, but health officials don’t know how often it has led to someone being notified of an exposure. Instead of an automatic notification, it is meant to jog someone’s memory by showing them — or health workers — where they have been for the past two weeks.

“While we know that it has been very helpful in many cases, we can’t say exactly how many,” said Rhode Island health department spokesman Joseph Wendelken.

Privacy advocates have largely favored the approach taken by Apple and Google, but some health experts have questioned its effectiveness, especially if there are too many false alarms and if local health agencies don’t have the capacity to test enough people.

Apple and Google didn’t immediately return an emailed request for comment Wednesday.

Stover said the app relies on widespread use and individual initiative to slow the spread. They’re hoping to see at least 50-60% of Virginians voluntarily download it.

Madison + Main, a Richmond-based company, is helping VDH launch an advertising campaign that engages private businesses, social influencers and universities.

The state’s biggest challenge could be overcoming privacy concerns and conspiracy theories surrounding the technology. Several members of Congress are pushing for federal privacy protections to boost public trust.

Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to provide more information on the app at his 2 p.m. press conference.

A week ago, WAVY posted a Twitter poll asking Virginians if they would download the app when it was released. The response was close, but the majority said they would not. Now that the VDH COVID-19 exposure notification app is officially available, we want to know if you have already downloaded the app or plan to.


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