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Virginia Unveils App To Aid Contact Tracing

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference in Richmond, Va. on June 4. Virginia has rolled out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Steve Helber
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference in Richmond, Va. on June 4. Virginia has rolled out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

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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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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