Pennsylvania prepares to launch virus-tracing app next month

The app is designed to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Coronavirus testing

Col. Scott Coradi (left) trains members of Task Force Ghostrider, Spc. Dominique Dalessio (center) and Sgt. Shane Brandes (right) on how to administer a COVID-19 test in Lancaster, Pa., on May 19, 2020. (Sgt. George Roach/U.S. Air National Guard)

Pennsylvania plans to launch a coronavirus exposure-notification app in early September in an effort to more quickly break chains of transmission by using the new technology to notify people who may have been exposed, officials said Monday.

The state has a $1.9 million contract to deploy and maintain the app with software developer NearForm Ltd, the Ireland-based company whose app there has been downloaded by more than one-fourth of that country’s residents.

The app is based on smartphone technology developed by Apple and Google, and will undergo a pilot project next week, using state government employees and public health students, staff and faculty, officials told The Associated Press in an interview.

The app will be interoperable with the state of Delaware’s app, and it also is expected to be interoperable with those of two other states, although Pennsylvania state officials declined to name those states because they are still in discussions with the app developer.

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“The app is about Pennsylvanians helping Pennsylvanians, it’s about as a community being able to let each other know and track each other’s exposure so we can keep each other safe,” said Health Department spokesperson April Hutcheson.

It’s use will be limited to people 18 and over.

It is similar to the app rolled out by Virginia earlier this month, when it became the first U.S. state to use new pandemic technology created by Apple and Google.

North Dakota and Wyoming have also launched an app using the Apple-Google technology in recent days, and a number of other states are interested in it, Google has said.

It is designed to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus, and state officials say the app does not store location information, personal information or the identify of anyone who is in close enough range to possibly be exposed.

It relies on Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus.

As a threshold, the app uses the Centers for Disease Control guideline of being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, said Meghna Patel, deputy secretary for health innovation at the Department of Health.

The identity of app users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently, the companies have said.

Patel said Ireland and Germany are good examples for where apps like this have been successful. More than 25% or 30% of those countries’ populations have downloaded the app and it has issued notifications that helped break chains of transmission, Patel said.

Someone who tests positive in Pennsylvania is reported to either the Department of Health or a municipal health department agency and contacted by a case investigator. That case investigator will ask the infected person if they have the app and if they are willing to use it to notify any mobile-phone users who have been in close contact with them in the past 14 days, state officials said.

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If they are willing to use it, they are given a six-digit code to enter to then issue a notification, state officials said. A person who receives a notification will get something like an alert to check the app, with instructions from the Department of Health on how to protect themselves and others, including information about staying at home, quarantining and seeking medical help.

The identify of the person who was infected is shielded from people receiving a notification, and vice versa, they said.

In addition to exposure notification, the Pennsylvania app will have a data feature that allows the user to see up-to-date information on case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths by county, as well a feature that helps the user to monitor their symptoms even if they have not tested positive, Patel said.

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