Virginia Unveils App To Aid Contact Tracing

Aug 5, 2020
Originally published on September 9, 2020 8:45 am

Virginia is rolling out a new app designed to aid in contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said COVIDWISE is the first statewide app to use technology developed for the purpose by Google and Apple. It relies on Bluetooth technology that can notify users if they may have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus.

"We know people are contagious before they show symptoms. This can really help us catch new cases early before they spread as far," Northam said during a press conference on Wednesday.

COVIDWISE – which state officials stress is an "exposure notification" app, not an app for direct contact tracing – allows users to voluntarily and anonymously report positive COVID-19 test results, and alert other app users who've been near them.

Rather than tracking users' identity and location, Virginia officials say, the Bluetooth technology creates anonymous "tokens," or random sequences of numbers, and exchanges them with other nearby users. The app uses that information to inform users if they've been near someone who has reported a positive test.

The use of technology for contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic has raised privacy concerns in some circles. In South Korea, for example, smartphone apps have been used to identify infected people and enforce mandatory quarantines.

During a briefing earlier Wednesday, Jeff Stover with the Virginia Department of Health said officials chose to use the Bluetooth-based app, rather than location-based contact tracing technology some other states have used, in response to such concerns.

"We can't do our job well if we can't ensure that the people that we're working with trust us to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of our data," Stover said. "We were very aware of that as we went into the development of this app."

Calling the app an "exciting step forward" to help get a handle on the spread of the virus, Northam echoed that message.

"This is your choice – but I hope Virginians across the state will use this," Northam said. "No one is tracking you; none of your personal information is going to be saved."

State officials said they were launching a marketing and educational campaign to help inform the public about the app and dispel fear and misinformation. That will include reaching out to religious leaders and offering public health officials as guests on talk radio shows.

Earlier in the week, Virginia and five other states announced they are joining a consortium to purchase three million rapid antigen tests that can detect the virus in 20 minutes or less. Northam said quick test results are critical to being able to reduce the spread of the virus and relax social distancing guidelines.

The state of Alabama this week announced it's using similar technology from Google and Apple for an app designed to help with contact tracing on state university campuses.

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The state of Virginia is wrestling with a dilemma of containing the coronavirus. Contact tracing is really valuable. If you find out you've been in contact with somebody who is sick, you can isolate yourself and protect other people. But some people are really uncomfortable with the idea of letting somebody trace their movements. They're skeptical about smartphone apps that would help do that, which is why Virginia is trying a different approach. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Virginia Beach on what's called exposure notification.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The coronavirus may not care about your politics, but your politics might shape the way you view the coronavirus, so Virginia health officials are taking their message straight to conservative talk radio audiences.


JOHN REID: Right now, I want to welcome Dr. Norman Oliver.

MCCAMMON: Oliver is Virginia's state health commissioner. And on conservative talk shows like this one, hosted by John Reid in Richmond, Oliver has been talking up a new app called COVIDWISE. It relies on Bluetooth technology developed by Apple and Google to notify users if they've been within about 6 feet of another app user who's recently tested positive. Oliver stresses that's different than tracking, but Reid, like other conservatives in the state, is skeptical about that difference.


REID: I'm not trying to bash you, but I - that kind of worries me.

NORMAN OLIVER: Good question. It's a good question.

MCCAMMON: Oliver's appearance is part of a marketing campaign designed to reach audiences who might be resistant to downloading a type of technology that can be hard to understand and is being promoted by state officials.


OLIVER: And we don't want a device that tracks people.

MCCAMMON: Jeff Stover is with the Virginia Department of Health.

JEFF STOVER: We know that there's a trust in government issue in general, and that's not an easy nut to crack.

MCCAMMON: Stover's department hired David Saunders with the Richmond marketing firm Madison+Main to help get the message out. Saunders has been having private conversations with conservative politicians, candidates and other thought leaders explaining how the app works and asking them to consider getting on board.

DAVID SAUNDERS: So there's kind of two levels of mitigation. One is if they can't be a supporter, let me arm them with enough information so they don't actively oppose it.

MCCAMMON: According to Pew Research, Republicans are much less likely to see the virus as a major public health threat. Saunders' firm is also reaching out to communities of color, many of whom he says are skeptical of public health officials after long and ugly histories of government abuse.

Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center, says there are many reasons people may be resistant to apps designed to help with contact tracing.

JOAN DONOVAN: And so a technology like this in its rollout has to gain an incredible amount of public trust on the front end before people download it, especially in the midst not just of COVID, but we're in a moment where people are very aware of surveillance technologies and the ways in which advertising and apps have linked up to serve them the wrong information.

MCCAMMON: For an exposure notification app to be most effective, researchers think they'd need more than half the population to download it. Virginia was the first to roll out its app statewide, and there's still a long way to go. Only about half a million of Virginia's 8.5 million residents downloaded it in the first month. But researchers estimate that for every one to two people who use the app, one new case could be avoided at a time when every case counts.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Virginia Beach.

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