Virginia officials on Wednesday launched a smartphone app that uses Bluetooth technology to alert people when they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Use of the app, designed to help contain the spread of the virus as public activity increases, is voluntary and would require that individuals download the software on their phones, activate notifications and self-report a positive COVID-19 test.
The app, COVIDWISE, is the result of a collaborative project between Google and Apple, which have been in talks with Virginia and other states to develop and roll out the app for months. Virginia on Wednesday became the first state to fully launch an app with this particular platform.
Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday urged Virginians to engage with the new app, which he described as a “really powerful tool in our tool box,” to fight COVID-19.
Northam and officials of the Virginia Department of Health acknowledged possible privacy concerns, assuring the public that the app does not track their whereabouts or store personal information.
Jeff Stover, who has been working on the app at the VDH, said that the software is designed to give users more information about their exposure and will not be part of the state’s traditional contact tracing effort, which involves phone calls with people who test positive to log data about their recent whereabouts.
“It’s all about exposure notification. We’re not tracing anybody,” Stover said.
The Virginia Department of Health, using the platform created by Google and Apple, contracted with the technology firm SpringML Inc. to develop an app unique to Virginia. The state paid the firm $229,000 in federal emergency funding to develop the app, and expects to pay an additional $29,000 over the next year to pay for technical support.
State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said that no patient data in the hands of VDH will ever be shared with SpringML, Apple or Google.
When users download the app and activate the Bluetooth technology built into their phone, they are asked to agree to notifications if someone they have been close to reports a positive test. Public health officials hope that the information will prompt people to evaluate their symptoms, avoid the potential for spread and seek testing.
When people receive a positive test result, they’ll be contacted by a local health agency to engage in contact tracing efforts. As part of that process, they’ll also receive a personal identification number they can use to report a positive test result through their COVIDWISE app.
Suresh Soundararajan, the chief information officer at the VDH, said the agency stores individual PINs for only 48 hours. The PINs will help avoid false positive reports, and could allow users who travel to other states to interact with those systems.
Over the coming weeks, the state will roll out a public information campaign urging individuals to participate under the slogan, “Add your phone to the COVID fight.” The state hired Richmond-based communications firm Madison+Main to promote the app.
Stover said that roughly 56% of residents would need to use the app to suppress the pandemic, citing a study out of Oxford University. He said that the app can still be effective at a lower usage rate. He said that for every one to two people using the app, the state will see one fewer case of COVID-19.
Antigen test compact
Northam on Wednesday also discussed a compact with five other states to purchase a new type of rapid COVID-19 test from manufacturers Becton Dickinson and Quidel.
Northam said Virginia will work with representatives from Maryland, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio, under the helm of the Rockefeller Foundation, to negotiate the purchase of 500,000 tests per state.
The state doesn’t have a timeline by when the tests will be delivered, Northam said.
The state is seeking antigen tests, a new type of COVID-19 test that yields results within 10 to 15 minutes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the antigen tests the state will negotiate for and are already available on the market in limited supply.
Northam said Virginia chose to enter the compact with the acknowledgement that many people are facing long waits for traditional COVID-19 tests. Northam said the compact is a way states are working around the lack of a national testing strategy from the administration of President Donald Trump.
“We’ve had enough,” Northam said Wednesday. “We as governors have been asked to fight a biological war without supplies.”
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