‘This can help us catch new cases early’: VDH launches ‘COVIDWISE’, an exposure notification app

‘This can help us catch new cases early’: VDH launches ‘COVIDWISE’, an exposure notification app
VDH and Gov. Northam announced the launch of the COVIDWISE app, an exposure notification system (Source: COVIDWISE.org)

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia has rolled out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. It’s the first U.S. state to use new pandemic technology created by Apple and Google.

The COVIDWISE app is available in all smartphone app stores as of Wednesday.

The announcement of this app comes nearly four months after Apple and Google said they were partnering on creating app-building software for public health agencies trying to contain the spread of the pandemic.

“It is completely anonymous,” said Jeff Stover, Director of Health Informatics & Integrated Surveillance Systems at the Virginia Department of Health. “As a user, you can notify others if you’re positive and you can receive notifications from others if you’ve likely been exposed.”

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“We must continue to fight COVID-19 from every possible angle,” said Governor Ralph Northam. “The COVIDWISE exposure notification app gives you an additional tool to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community while maintaining your personal privacy. I encourage all Virginians to download and use this app, so we can work together to contain this virus.”

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) helped develop this app in partnership with Spring ML. The vendor used the framework provided by Apple and Google to develop the “ins and outs” of COVIDWISE. Virginia and Spring ML signed a $229,000 contract to develop the app, which was funded through the CARES Act.

Meanwhile, state leaders said other countries like Ireland and Germany, have successfully used this kind of technology in similar apps.

“The most important thing was you know whether or not you were potentially exposed and that we can all take actions to do whatever prevention is necessary,” Stover said.

Unlike other apps like Facebook and Twitter which track who you are and your location, the state said COVIDWISE is not built to do that.

Instead, experts said it uses Bluetooth low-energy technology with another goal. “Which assigns random keys to positive cases,” Northam said. “It uses those keys to determine if you’ve been close contact with someone who is positive for the COVID-19 virus and send you an alert.”

However, it’s up to you to decide whether to download the app, and also up to those who test positive to self-report. The app is anonymous.

“We’re not forcing you; we’re not telling anybody,” said Suresh Soundararajan, Chief Information Technology Officer at VDH. “We’re not doing it automatically. It is a choice. It’s a choice for you to help your community.”

Here’s how it works, per the VDH:

“COVIDWISE works by using random Bluetooth keys that change every 10 to 20 minutes. iOS and Android devices that have the app installed will anonymously share these random keys if they are within close proximity for at least 15 minutes. Each day, the device downloads a list of all random keys associated with positive COVID-19 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, COVIDWISE may notify the individual, taking into account the date and duration of exposure, and the Bluetooth signal strength which is used to estimate proximity.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified by a VDH case investigator and will be given a unique numeric code. This code is entered into the app by the user and serves as verification of a positive report. Others who have downloaded COVIDWISE and have been in close proximity to the individual who reported as being positive will receive a notice which reads, “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.” This is your alert to get tested.”

Northam believes through this app, Virginia can tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and significantly reduce spread.

“We know people are contagious before they show symptoms,” he said. “This can really help us catch new cases early before they spread as far. You get that alert, you get a test and then you can quarantine yourself.”

“Knowing your exposure history allows you to self-quarantine effectively, seek timely medical attention, and reduce potential exposure risk,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MA. “The more Virginians use COVIDWISE, the greater the likelihood that you will receive timely exposure notifications that lead to effective disease prevention.”

Apple and Google also announced once the pandemic is over the companies would be pulling the technology from use, according to Soundararajan.

Additionally, VDH leaders said studies done at Oxford on this type of technology projects that every one person who downloads the app could potentially avert one to two infections.

VDH will also be launching a statewide public information campaign about the app to ensure Virginians know about this resource.

Meanwhile, Northam announced the number of COVID-19 positive cases documented as of Tuesday evening decreased from prior days. However, he did acknowledge an uptick in the number of cases in the southwestern part of the Commonwealth.

As for the stricter regulations placed on the Hampton Roads area, Northam said no license suspensions have happened recently.

Copyright 2020 WWBT. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.