- Virginia on Wednesday became the first state to fully deploy a COVID-19 exposure notification app relying on Apple and Google's Bluetooth-based software.
- The Virginia Department of Health says the app, called COVIDWISE, is fully opt-in for Virginia residents, includes stringent privacy protections (including not collecting location data or personal information) and will not be used for the state's contact tracing efforts. Instead, app users can notify others and get exposure notifications following positive COVID-19 test results.
- If they choose to report their result, Virginia residents positive for COVID-19 are provided a personal identification number they enter into COVIDWISE to verify their identity and make sure exposure notifications are legitimate, the department told Virginia Public Media. Other app users will then get a notification if their phones were within six feet of the infected individual within the past two weeks, based on the strength and duration of the Bluetooth signal.
Contract tracing is a useful tool for public health agencies to track potential outbreaks and try to tamp down virus transmission before it spirals out of control. Experts called on the Trump administration to enact a comprehensive, nationwide contact tracing program when the novel coronavirus began to spread in earnest in the U.S. earlier this year. But federal inaction forced states to implement piecemeal tracing approaches, allowing the virus to spread largely unchecked, blooming into hotspots across the country.
Apple and Google announced a joint effort to facilitate contact tracing for public health agencies in April, and rolled out the software that uses Bluetooth radios within iOS and Android systems to track distances between phones publicly in late May. The two companies said then 22 countries and multiple states including Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina had requested and received access to the technology.
In an update last week, Apple and Google said 20 U.S. states and territories representing almost half of the U.S. population were developing apps based on the exposure notifications infrastructure.
The Virginia Department of Health's contact tracing app is the first full deployment, more than two months after the software was released. The state has almost 100,000 confirmed cases to date, and though its two-week trend of new cases is relatively flat, contact tracing is likely "extremely difficult" due to a lack of resources, according to CovidExitStrategy.org, a tracker maintained by public health and crisis experts.
The effectiveness of digital contact tracing apps relies on how many people download and use them. Wariness with tech giants and perceived government spying could hamstring adoption, with only half of consumers saying they're comfortable using apps to track contact with infected individuals, according to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
COVIDWISE also allows people with COVID-19 to choose whether or not to report their infection, so human error or apathy could lessen the efficacy of the app.
Alabama began piloting its own exposure notification app, called GuideSafe, this week, through its public health department and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The app is available to any Alabama higher education students with a .edu email address as part of the state's return-to-campus plan.
The Association of Public Health Laboratories is also working to create infrastructure that would allow the apps to continue working across state lines.