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State launches contact tracing app

State government officials on Tuesday launched a smartphone app that will alert users when they have come in close contact with someone with COVID-19.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine issued a statement this week urging Pennsylvanians to download the so-named “COVID Alert PA” app, which uses exposure notification system technology authored by Apple and Google to detect if the smartphone user has been in close contact with another user that later tested positive for COVID-19.

Users will be able to tap the COVID-19 Exposure Alert to receive public health guidance on what to do next, according to the statement.

“We all play a part in stopping the spread of COVID-19, which is why I am encouraging every Pennsylvanian to add their phone to the fight and download COVID Alert PA today,” Levine said. “By utilizing this technology, we can quickly notify more people who have been exposed to COVID-19. This innovative solution will enhance our COVID-19 response and give residents another tool to stay calm, stay alert and stay safe all in the palm of their hands.”

Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of the Department of Health Dr. Rachel Levine today launched the COVID-19 exposure notification mobile app, COVID Alert PA, to help fight the spread of the virus. 

The app doesn’t enable location services or track anyone, and officials say it’s designed to be completely anonymous. The exposure notification system works by using Bluetooth Low Energy, which allows phones with the app to recognize when it is close to another phone. The proximity, not the location, between phones is the only thing measured by the system according to a statement released by state officials announcing the launch.

“We are very committed to and conscious of protecting the privacy and security of all Pennsylvanians,” Levine said. “COVID Alert PA will not track your location or collect any personal information from you—it is simply an exposure notification tool. The app uses Bluetooth technology to send a notification if someone has been in close contact with an individual who later tested positive for COVID-19. This is the same technology that your smartphone uses to connect to your wireless Bluetooth headphones, or your car. The app will never ask you to turn on your location.”

Health officials say the app will support, not replace, traditional contact tracing processes.

When the Pennsylvania Department of Health contacts a COVID-19-positive individual to discuss their diagnosis, the public health representative will provide a unique six-digit validation code to the individual to enter into the app. The app will then be able to alert other app users who have been in close contact with the individual, although these exposure alerts don’t reveal the identity of the COVID-19 positive individual or their location.

Gov. Wolf’s office issued a statement Tuesday saying the Department of Health doesn’t know the identity of app users who receive the alerts and that the department will only see the number of exposure notifications generated on a given date.

The app — designed in partnership with Irish technology company NearForm, University of Pennsylvania and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Internet Privacy Research Institute (PRI) — is currently available for download on the Apple app store and Google Play store in English and Spanish.

 

Justin Henry is the regional reporter for the Central Penn Business Journal and the Lehigh Valley Business. He can be reached at jhenry@bridgetowermedia.com.

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