This week, Virginia plans to release a COVID-19 exposure notification app based on the specifications published by Apple and Google in April. The app, called COVIDWISE, is the first fully implemented implementation of the Apple and Google system in the US and has been beta tested by the Department of Health.
The specification is designed to maintain patient privacy, especially around their location and whether they have tested positive for COVID-19. “Location data or personal information is never collected, stored or sent to VDH as part of the app,” said a health department official Virginia told Public Media, who first reported the news. “You can delete the app at any time or turn off exposure notifications.”
If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) will give them a PIN that they can use to report that result in the app. Then, other users of the app should be notified if their phones have been near the sick for the past 14 days. However, those notifications only go to phones when the exposure happens reached a threshold for a strength and duration of the Bluetooth signal that can be estimated as a user within 15 meters of the other user for 15 minutes (based on the ‘Center for Disease Control and Prevention’ definition of ‘close contact’).
The Apple and Google system relies on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and does not track the physical location via GPS. Instead, it collects and stores signals from nearby phones. Phones trade anonymous keys, which change every 15 minutes. The companies announced their partnership in April and brought the system’s API to the health departments in May.
Apps that automate the contact tracking process can help people who were around someone with COVID-19, even if they don’t remember the interaction. They can also immediately report a possible virus exposure. But they are not a substitute for manual contact tracking as they can only track contacts between people with smartphones and decide to use the app. The VDH said it does not use the app as part of its own contact tracking process, but provides users with a way to track their own potential exposures.
The more people download the app, the more effective it will be. “If enough of the population downloaded this app and turned it on on their phone, we would have an automated way of finding out who you’ve been with,” Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico health districts in Virginia, VPM said.
Alabama launched a close pilot for its own exposure reporting app called GuideSafe this week. The pilot is open to anyone in the state with an .edu email address. It’s part of the state’s plans to return to campus, said Ray Watts, president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The app aims for 10,000 downloads, each on Apple and Android phones.
Twenty US states are interested in apps that use the Apple and Google system, Google said last week. Alabama, South Carolina and North Dakota each had projects under development in May. The Association of Public Health Laboratories is also building a national server that apps can access work across state borders.