As COVID-19 rates are blowing up — Washington is reporting a daily average of about 2,700 new cases — the state on Monday is unveiling an app to inform residents if they’ve been exposed to an infected person.
WA Notify is a free app that uses technology developed through a joint effort by Apple and Google called the Exposure Notification System. The app takes advantage of low-energy Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones to detect and remember interactions, allowing people to be notified if they’ve been in proximity to someone who later tests positive for COVID. It does not collect any personal information to identify app users or track their movements.
“It rapidly gets the information out to people who were close contacts to watch for symptoms, to make them aware of testing opportunities, to self-quarantine and if they’re infected, to isolate,” said Washington’s Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman.
Health officials are eager for a new tool to help curb COVID’s spread. In Western Washington, the number of new daily cases increased more than six-fold from September to November. A recent report from King County found that roughly one-third of people who tested positive for COVID hadn’t known that they’d been in contact with someone who was infected and were not linked to an outbreak event.
Now the challenge is to make the public aware of the app and get them to install it. In states that have similar apps, adoption rates have been low and it’s unclear how much of a difference the technology will make.
But even less-than-widespread use will have benefits, health officials said. An academic study predicted that an adoption rate of 15% would still curb infections by 11% and deaths by 15%, said Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary for COVID-19 response.
Here’s how WA Notify works.
- Smartphones that are running WA Notify and have their Bluetooth turned on are continually sending and receiving signals from other phones. These signals are shared as a random code that frequently changes, and creates a log of other devices that they’ve been in proximity with.
- If someone tests positive for COVID, a healthcare worker determines if that person is using WA Notify. If they are, the infected person receives a code that they enter into the app. That triggers a signal to other WA Notify users saying that they’ve potentially been exposed.
- The WA Notify app is set to track the exposures that could lead to an infection, which is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as coming within six feet of another person for a total of at least 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours.
- The code is only sent to people who were in range during the time the infected person was potentially contagious, which is determined by case investigators.
- The app does not identify either party or reveal where the exposure took place, including whether it was indoors and outdoors.
- The person who receives a notification is asked to quarantine and get tested for COVID.
The app does not use GPS and won’t replace contact tracing or case investigations — work that has been overwhelmed in many areas due to the surge in cases. Local and state investigators will work in support of the app and the state has hired more investigators, bringing their number to 700 workers.
Potentially the most important benefit will be notifying people who interact anonymously in public spaces, on a bus or at a grocery story, for example, or when someone who is infected can’t remember all of the places they’ve been and people they’ve been near. Because it doesn’t track people’s locations, it won’t help identify hot spots for transmission. It will also miss people who don’t have smart phones.
Back in April, digital contact tracing was tech’s much hyped solution for helping curb COVID. Seattle alone spawned multiple efforts, including CovidSafe, a collaboration between the University of Washington and Microsoft; NextTrace, an initiative connected to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; and COVID Trace, a project started by three Seattle engineers with prior experience at Moz, Google, Uber and elsewhere.
So why has it taken nearly eight months for a statewide app to get here?
While multiple projects launched in the spring, they weren’t immediately ready for widespread deployment. The technology initially announced by Apple and Google required states to build their own apps and handle the notifications. There was no federal leadership for digital notification, and states struggled to come up with their own solutions. In early September, the tech giants released an updated version of the app that was more plug-and-play ready, with the Association of Public Health Laboratories managing notifications.
Even as tech solutions improved, Washington still needed to move cautiously in order to protect privacy concerns and address equity issues, Wiesman said. This summer the state convened an oversight committee including security and civil liberties experts as well as leaders representing people of color and other communities who are disproportionately impacted by the virus.
With the committee’s approval, earlier this month officials opened a pilot test of WA Notify. Some 3,500 UW students, staff and faculty have been using the technology, and researchers report that the test run has gone smoothly.
As of last week, 17 U.S. states and territories were operating exposure notification programs. Washington as well as Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, D.C. are running programs based on Exposure Notification Express. In September, California and Oregon announced that they would also pilot apps using the technology.
Custom-made apps are being used in Alabama, Delaware, Guam, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wyoming. Many of these apps still use elements of the Apple and Google system or work with the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which should allow for notifications to continue working when people move between states.
Nevada is using an app built by Seattle’s COVID Trace. It launched in August and incorporates Exposure Notification Express technology.
“In terms of privacy, what Apple and Google have provided is the gold standard,” said Dudley Carr, one of the COVID Trace founders.
Carr said the app is performing well. From anonymized data they know that each positive case is triggering two to three notifications. So far 100,000 people in the state of 3 million have installed the app; their goal is to triple or quadruple that number and interest is rising as case counts spike.
Washington this week is kicking off a $2 million marketing campaign to publicize WA Notify. Officials are tentatively planning to send push alerts to phones using both iPhone and Android operating systems that would encourage people to install the app. Whether they do or not is up to them.