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Virginia uses CARES Act funding to launch COVID-19 tracing app

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures during a news conference Monday, May 4, 2020, at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.

(The Center Square) – Virginia is using federal coronavirus relief funding to launch a phone application that allows users to track whether they have interacted with people who have contracted COVID-19, Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday.

The COVIDWISE application cost $229,000 to develop and launch and about $29,000 monthly to operate. The state also will run a marketing campaign to spread awareness of the app by purchasing internet, TV, print and talk radio advertisements. The Northam administration did not immediately respond to a request from The Center Square about how much money would be spent on the advertisements and where that money would come from.

A person who downloads the application and enables bluetooth for the app will allow it to keep track of interactions that person has with other people who have downloaded the app and enabled bluetooth. The app will allow a person to report he or she has contracted COVID-19 using a PIN from the Virginia Department of Health, which then will alert other people with the app they have been in contact with someone with COVID-19.

COVIDWISE will inform users when they came in contact with the person with COVID-19, the duration of the exposure and an approximate proximity, with estimates based on the bluetooth strength. The app will be entirely anonymous, and it does not use a GPS or track the location of any person. No personally identifiable information will be detected.

Downloading the app is optional and inputting information about contracting COVID-19 also is optional.

“We must continue to fight COVID-19 from every possible angle,” Northam said in a statement. “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.”

If between 50 percent and 60 percent of the state downloaded the app, the entire pandemic would be wiped completely, but the number of downloads does not have to be that high to be effective, Jeff Stover, the director of health informatics and integrated surveillance systems at the Virginia Department of Health, said. For every one to two app users, he said, it likely will reduce the total number of people infected by one.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to be identified across the Commonwealth, it is important for people to know whether they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the disease,” State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver said in a statement “COVIDWISE will notify you if you’ve likely been exposed to another app user who anonymously shared a positive COVID-19 test result. Knowing your exposure history allows you to self-quarantine effectively, seek timely medical attention, and reduce potential exposure risk. The more Virginians use COVIDWISE, the greater the likelihood that you will receive timely exposure notifications that lead to effective disease prevention.”

The app will not track whether a person self quarantines and will be available in English and Spanish.

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