There are many facets to fighting the COVID-19 coronavirus but when it comes to stemming its infection, the most basic strategy is also the most difficult. Contact tracing relies mostly on people remembering who they’ve been in contact with or where they’ve been, an arduous and inaccurate task at best. That is why many are turning to technology to help automate some parts of that process and the State of Virginia is the first in the US to release an app that utilizes the exposure notification technology co-developed by Apple and Google just a few months back.
Exposure tracking technologies mostly work the same way, regardless of who makes them. Each device, be it a phone or a simple Bluetooth Tag, gets a unique and private ID that identifies it and uses Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) to keep a log of those IDs from similar devices it comes within range. Should a user test positive for the coronavirus, he or she has the option to send that anonymized log to the system so that people they came in contact with for the past 14 days can be notified.
There have been several mobile apps that tried this system but all of them were limited due to the way Android and iOS limit apps accessing Bluetooth or location data in the background. A few months ago, Apple and Google worked to provide ways for legit tracing apps to tap into their respective phone’s resources just for that purpose. To be clear, neither Apple nor Google are making tracing apps themselves and leaves it up to governments and health agencies to develop apps using these facilities.
Adoption of this Exposure Notification technology has been rather slow due to concerns regarding privacy. Nonetheless, it seems that Virginia has weighed the pros and cons and have decided to launch its own COVIDWISE app for both iPhones and Android phones, to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The state’s health department promises that location or personal data are ever collected, stored, or transmitted when using the app.
The use of COVIDWISE is purely voluntary, of course, which could also undermine efforts for a stronger contact tracing system. Automated and device-based systems such as these depend heavily on the number of people using it in a given area. Singapore found that out the hard way when it launched a similar app earlier this year which didn’t get as much traction, reducing its overall effectiveness.