Virginia launches COVID-19 exposure notification app

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginians can now download COVIDWISE, an app that notifies people of potential exposure to the coronavirus using Bluetooth technology.

This is the first statewide launch of an app that uses Apple and Google’s framework, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The free app can be downloaded on smart phones from the App Store and is available in English and Spanish.

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 the 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.

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.

If someone receives an exposure notification, Stover said the app will give them options on what to do next and provide a list of testing sites in close proximity.

Stover said the app relies on widespread use and individual initiative to slow the spread. They’re hoping to see at least 50-60 percent 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.

The DC Health Department said conversations about introducing this app in Washington, D.C. may happen in the future.

Contact tracing app near launch in Virginia as Congress calls for privacy protections

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