State debuts phone app that helps trace contact with COVID-19

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Delaware's new COVID Alert DE app
Delaware’s new COVID Alert DE app

A new smartphone app designed by the state of Delaware Division of Public Health will notify users if they’ve come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

That will allow the user to self-quarantine and be tested and ultimately help stop the spread of the virus to family, friends and others, state health officials say.

COVID Alert DE, which is free and available on both Apple and Android platforms, works with low-energy Bluetooth technology.

 

Phones using the system recognize each other and exchange Bluetooth signals, but no personal details or even information about the location of the phones.

If one of the parties later tests positive, the state will give them a six-digit number to enter on their phone. That number will send a alert to phones that have been within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more warning the owner that he or she may have been exposed.

The receiver is responsible for seeking help based on state guidelines. The state Division of Public Health will not be alerted to the connection and cannot identify that person or the location of the exposure from the phone information, Delaware health officials stressed Tuesday.

Molly Magarik, secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services
Molly Magarik

“I am really excited to announce the launch of an important new tool for fighting COVID-19 that is going to rest in the palm of your hand,” said Molly Magarik, secretary of the Delaware Department of Public Health, during Gov. John Carney’s weekly COVID-19 press conference.

In designing the app, she said, “One of the foremost considerations for the state was the privacy of people who would be using the app.” The phones recognize the technology in each other, not the location or other information and any information passed between them is anonymous, she said.

The app is only available to Delawareans who are 18 or older, and it comes in both English and Spanish versions. It is the same technology that surrounding states will use in their contact tracing apps, Magarik said. The current version also allows users to log their symptoms.

 

Magarik said the state hopes to be able to put data and other information into the app that will enable Delaware residents to keep up to date about the virus.

By downloading the app, she said, users are adding another layer of personal protection.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said she has some questions she wants answered before she downloads the new app. House Health & Human Development.

She’s tired of getting told about new programs right before they launch, she said. A member of the House of Representatives’ Health & Human Development Committee, she missed a Zoom call about the app on Monday because she was babysitting her 4-year-old twin grandchildren. But those Zoom calls are difficult to ask questions during, she said.

While she was at polling places Tuesday, people who were voting in Delaware’s primary election asker her questions about privacy and how effective the app would be.

 

“I don’t know that I’ll download the app until I get quite a few questions answered,” Briggs King said.

She wants to know more about how it was designed and tested, how it works and also how phone operating systems will change the app when the systems update. She thinks that the state has a history of introducing programs and technology that it’s developed and then having the system not work.

She pointed to election technology as an example. People didn’t get ballots they were supposed to, she said. And when asked to call a county elections center, they were rerouted to several places before they got to the correct number, meaning they had to stay on the phone for 15 or 20 minutes, she said.

 

 

Magarik’s presentation Tuesday said the app will use Bluetooth keys. Those are random numbers that change every 10 to 20 minutes in the background of a user’s phone.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19 in Delaware, the results are verified by the Division of Public. who try to get in touch with that person. If he or she has a phone with DE COVID Alert on it, they will be offered the six-digit code. It is not mandatory.

“At all times, the app user is in control and remains anonymous,” Magarik and Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of public health, said in an oped they wrote about the new app.

Magarik stressed during Tuesday’s press conference that the app did not have GPS, geocaching or any other form of location software in it. It will not know if someone is quarantining. It will not collect or share any personal information.

In addition, the user can delete the app or turn off alerts at any time, Margarik and Rattay said.

Magarik said the app will help contact tracers, because many people who test positive often don’t know the people they have been around, especially if it’s in a public place such as a train, party, business, a restaurant or a small public event.

And while the Delaware app will talk to apps in Pennsylvania and other states, the user must download that state’s app, too, for the system to work, Magarik and Rattay said.

“But this is the most important part: You need to download the app of the state in which you are currently living and where you expect to be tested if needed,” Magarik and Rattay said. “Testing results go to the state that you provide when registering at a testing site.”

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