Application That Alerts Virginia Users of Possible COVID-19 Exposure Downloaded More Than 300,000 Times


COVIDWISE, an app that alerts users of possible COVID-19 exposure, has been downloaded 356,777 times in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).

The application was launched by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on August 5.

“We must continue to fight COVID-19 from every possible angle,” said Gov. Northam in a release about the app. “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.”

On Wednesday Dr. Melissa Viray, deputy director of Richmond’s health district, spoke about the application at a press conference alongside Mayor Levar Stoney.

“[COVIDWISE] is the nation’s first state-based mobile exposure notification app,” Viray said. “COVIDWISE is a free app that uses Bluetooth technology and allows users to be anonymously be notified when they have, both by proximity and by time, potentially been exposed to another user with a VDH verified positive COVID test.”

The app operates with Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification system using Bluetooth low energy technology. When a COVIDWISE user opts into the exposure system on the app an anonymous key is generated, according to the VDH.

The anonymous key of a user, changed daily to protect privacy, is shared with and stores the keys of other users who were in close proximity for 14 days. This exchange of keys between phones happens when COVIDWISE users are near each other for a period of time determined by VDH, based on the latest research, to represent a risk, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The phones calculate the risk of an exchange between users with the time, date, duration of contact and the strength of bluetooth signal to estimate distance, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

In Virginia, it is mandated that labs must report any positive COVID-19 test to the VDH, said Virginia Department of Health spokesperson Julie Grimes in an interview with The Virginia Star.

The COVID-positive individual is then contacted by the VDH to as part of the contact tracing protocol.

Within the contact tracing process the individual is asked if they are aware of the COVIDWISE app. If that person has already downloaded the app, a random pin number is given by the VDH officer, Grimes said.

The pin is used to alert other COVIDWISE users – whose anonymous keys were shared and stored with the key of the positive person within the last 14 days – of a possible exposure. It is completely up to the COVID-positive individual if they want to enter the pin or use the app at all, however, Grimes said.

The COVIDWISE app is neither a perfect solution nor is it substitute for established contact tracing.

“[COVIDWISE] is only part of what contract tracing really is,” Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said on the NPR show 1A. “I always think about how this is based off proximity so what if you have two people that are sitting in cars next to each other? Theoretically that is going to pull as if they are within six feet for more than 15 minutes, which is how CDC defines exposure, but we know they really aren’t going to be exposed. A huge piece to apps like these is to know that it is about 50 percent of what contact tracing is.”

One aspect of COVIDWISE that is imperative to VDH is privacy.

“Privacy was the number one concern when Virginia was looking to develop a [COVID-19 exposure] notification app,” Grimes said. “We were very concerned about privacy issues and the ability for people who may be COVID-19 positive to remain anonymous.

“It does not use GPS, it does not track you, it doesn’t require any location data, it doesn’t require any personal information and, in fact, none of that type of data is collected, stored, tracked, transmitted or given to [VDH] as part of the app.”

“The reason they have this verification code [pin] is to make sure that people don’t take advantage of the system to sort of wreak havoc by sending out notifications to lots and lots of people if they haven’t actually tested positive,” Josephine Wolf, professor of cybersecurity at Tufts University, said on the NPR show 1A.

The 356,777 COVIDWISE downloads as of midnight Sunday only constitutes 8.39  percent of the target group in Virginia: people ages 18-65 that own smartphones, Grimes said.

COVIDWISE can be downloaded in the App Store for iPhone users and the Google Play Store for Android users, according to the VDH website.

Additional information on COVIDWISE can be found here.

In the press conference on Wednesday, Viray also spoke about the current outlook of COVID-19 in Richmond and Virginia overall.

“Overall in Virginia, we may be holding stable or perhaps even decreasing, but in different parts of Virginia we’re seeing different areas of surge, Viray said. “In Richmond, we aren’t seeing a surge, but I continue to be concerned around these slow but steady increases we’ve been seeing in our cases.”

Viray added that Richmond currently has a COVID-19 positivity rate of 8.6 percent, which is higher than before.

As of August 14, there has been 104,838 cases, 8,650 hospitalizations and 2,370 deaths in Virginia. In Richmond specifically, there has been 3,308 cases, 327 hospitalizations and 41 deaths, according to the VDH  COVID-19 daily dashboard.

In Richmond, COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect minorities. Black or Latino people make up 2,183 of cases, 285 hospitalizations and 32 deaths, according to the daily dashboard.

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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]





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