Pennsylvania’s new coronavirus exposure notification app became available in app stores Tuesday and could soon be compatible with those of three neighboring states, including New York.
The release of the app, named COVID AlertPa, is part of Pennsylvania’s effort to more quickly break chains of transmission by using the technology to notify people who may have been exposed.
The state has a $1.9 million contract, using federal grant dollars, to deploy and maintain the app with software developer NearForm Ltd., an Irish-based company whose app there has been downloaded by more than one-fourth of that country’s residents.
Gov. Tom Wolf, at a news conference in Philadelphia, and state and city health officials urged people to download the app and stressed that it keeps users anonymous.
Wolf used the example of someone contracting the virus from someone else on a bus who later tests positive.
“This app will be able to anonymously, anonymously notify the other person of their potential exposure,” Wolf said.
The app is based on smartphone technology developed by Apple and Google. It is similar to the app rolled out by Virginia last month, when it became the first U.S. state to use new pandemic technology created by Apple and Google. A handful of other states have also launched apps using the Apple and Google technology.
The app will work with Delaware’s, which was released last week, and it will also be compatible with those of other states when they launch on the NearForm platform, state officials say. New York and New Jersey are expected to release a compatible app soon, Wolf 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 identity of anyone who is in close enough range to possibly be exposed.
Use is limited to people 18 and over.
In addition to exposure notification, the Pennsylvania app has a data feature that allows the user to see up-to-date information on case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths by county and a feature that helps the user to monitor their symptoms even if they have not tested positive.
It relies on Bluetooth 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 and Prevention guideline of being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, state health officials have said.
The identity of app users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently, the companies have 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.
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 identity of the person who was infected is shielded from people receiving a notification, and vice versa, they said.
— Marc Levy, Associated Press