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M. Norman Oliver column: Virginia launches COVIDWISE app
COVID-19 alert

M. Norman Oliver column: Virginia launches COVIDWISE app

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Virginia is launching a new smartphone app that can alert you when you’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The app is named COVIDWISE, and it is a major addition to the public health tools we are using to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia. The app was developed through an unprecedented partnership between tech giants Google and Apple, and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).

Once a person downloads COVIDWISE from the Google Play Store or App Store, the user subsequently can be alerted if he or she likely was exposed to COVID-19. The user then can take action to protect himself and others by voluntarily staying at home in quarantine for a brief period and by getting tested.

Virginia is the first U.S. state to make an app available using the Google-Apple framework, and a lot of people will be watching us to see how it works.

COVID-19’s impact has been devastating. The novel coronavirus first detected late last year in China has traveled around the world, infecting more than 18 million people and killing nearly 700,000 people. In the U.S. alone, more than 158,000 people have died from COVID-19. That includes more than 2,000 people in Virginia.

Virginia has made significant progress to slow the spread of COVID-19, but that has required drastic, unprecedented actions. Schools and universities closed and remain closed, and many will start the upcoming school year with online classes only. Many businesses have shifted to teleworking. Cloth face masks now are required when we do everyday things like shop for groceries, ride the bus or visit the doctor.

Even with all those measures, we still are safer at home. Recent spikes in cases in Hampton Roads show that we risk setbacks if we don’t maintain vigilance. If we let our guards down and don’t take infection risk seriously, cases will go up. More people will get sick. More people will die. As long as that is the case, it feels like we are on lockdown.

Technology that many of us carry around with us all the time can help us fight this battle and get back to normal.

VDH hired SpringML to help create the COVIDWISE app, which is built on a framework developed jointly by Google and Apple.

The app does not collect location data or any personally identifiable information. It is not tracking your every move like a GPS tracker would. That is not our intention.

Rather, COVIDWISE uses Bluetooth Low Energy, a low power, wireless communications technology that enables smart devices to communicate over short distances.

Right now, a lot of COVID-19 is spread by people who are infected but not showing symptoms. You might come into contact with such a person yourself and not know it. You go about your day, not knowing you were exposed and possibly infected, and you potentially expose others. COVIDWISE can help us interrupt this chain of transmission.

Once downloaded, COVIDWISE app users decide if they want to receive exposure notifications from others and whether or not to anonymously self-report if they personally test positive for COVID-19. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified by a VDH case investigator and given a unique numeric code to enter into the app. The code serves as verification of a positive report.

Having participated in the three rounds of beta testing for COVIDWISE, I can verify that it is simple to use.

Behind the scenes, the COVIDWISE app generates random Bluetooth keys or tokens that change every 10 to 20 minutes. Phones with the app installed will share these random keys with each other if they are within close proximity. How close? Essentially, if app users are within 6 feet of another app user for 15 minutes or longer they will share tokens.

Every day, the app downloads a list of all random keys associated with positive COVID-19 test results submitted by other app users and checks them against the list of random keys it has encountered in the last 14 days. If there is a match, the app then takes into account the date and duration of exposure and proximity, or how close the people were, based on the Bluetooth signal strength. COVIDWISE then notifies people who had a likely exposure and who should quarantine, get tested and seek advice of a health care professional. The value of that notification is that it is automatic and might precede any symptoms.

The more people who use the app, the more likely it is that you will receive a notification if someone near you reported as being positive within the past 14 days.

We are launching a major public awareness campaign that encourages people to download and use the COVIDWISE app. Working together to use this app, Virginia can become a model for the rest of the nation in the use of technology to contain COVID-19. Together, we can slow the spread of COVID-19 and look forward to the day when Virginia fully is reopened.

M. Norman Oliver, M.D., is Virginia’s state health commissioner. Contact him at:

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