Virginia officials on Wednesday announced the release of the first statewide mobile app to trace the spread of COVID-19 using the Bluetooth-based interface developed jointly by Apple and Google. The app, called Covidwise, runs on the Exposure Notifications API that the two tech giants released in May for state and national health agencies to use in their efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you realize you’ve been exposed, you can get tested to find out if you have the virus,” Gov. Ralph Northam said at a press conference in Richmond. “This is critical information to have so you know to isolate and contact your doctor. Getting test results in a timely manner is a key part of that.”
Apps built on Exposure Notifications use mobile phones’ Bluetooth capabilities to exchange strings of random numbers, referred to as keys or tokens, with nearby devices that remain within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, consistent with the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of “close contact.”
The tokens change every 10-20 minutes, and each day the Covidwise app downloads a list of all tokens associated with phones belonging to people who tested positive for COVID-19. Any matches trigger an alert, instructing the user to schedule a diagnostic test for the deadly illness.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, residents who test positive for COVID-19 will be encouraged to download the app — if they haven’t already — when a member of the commonwealth’s contact tracing staff interviews them. Coronavirus-positive individuals will also receive a 6-digit personal identification number to enter into the app before confirming their diagnosis. The PIN verification, officials said, is to prevent false positives from disrupting the exchange of the Bluetooth keys.
Covidwise’s release comes as Virginia, like many other states, is experiencing a resurgence of coronavirus infections, particularly in the state’s Hampton Roads region. More than 95,000 Virginians have been infected during the pandemic, and 2,274 have died, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The app itself was developed by springML, a California data analytics firm that was paid $229,000 using part of the funding Virginia received in March as part of a federal pandemic relief package. The state is also paying a Richmond marketing firm to promote the app’s use through partnerships with chambers of commerce, universities, religious coalitions and businesses, including a local racetrack that hosts NASCAR events.
But in accordance with Apple and Google’s developer kit, Virginia cannot require its residents to download the Covidwise app. It also cannot track users’ physical locations or identities, a point Northam emphasized after describing the state’s difficulties in encouraging people to get tested and participate in the contact tracing process.
“It does not track you at all,” he said. “It doesn’t rely on GPS or your personal information, and while we want everyone to download it, it is voluntary.”
In the United States, which lags in adopting the Google-Apple API, Virginia is the first state to make an app based on that technology available to all its residents. Sixteen foreign countries, meanwhile, including Canada, Germany and Ireland, have in recent weeks launched nationwide apps of their own.
But the U.S. may be slowly catching up. On Monday, officials in Alabama announced the launch of an Exposure Notifications app that will first be marketed toward college students before being expanded statewide. And a Google spokesman recently told StateScoop as many as 20 state governments are developing projects using the API.