RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s coronavirus exposure notification app was the first of its kind to launch in early August. Yet with just over 15 percent of the target population hitting the download button, there are still millions of state residents who could be exposed to COVID-19 without ever knowing it.
“This is the first time, that I’m aware of, that we or any other state launched an app that would collect anonymous data and be able to share that within your community and your state, in this example, for the betterment of disease prevention,” Executive Advisor to the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Jeff Stover said.
The app anonymously reports positive test results for people who choose to report them. The more phones with the app downloaded, the more effective it becomes.
“We’d like 100 percent of all mobile devices to have COVIDWISE. We know that’s not going to happen,” Stover said.
But according to health officials, recent modeling studies demonstrates the app’s effectiveness, even with less than 650,000 downloads as of Tuesday, Oct. 13.
“An app that was at 15 percent downloads, they were saying via their modeling that that was reducing infections by about 8 percent and reducing deaths by upwards of about 6 percent. And of course, the higher the download percentage, the greater those numbers look. That’s the kind of thing that makes it really effective,” Stover said. “And there’s a solace in knowing that when you receive an exposure notification, that doesn’t mean that you’re — you have COVID. It just means that ‘hey, you may have been exposed.'”
Stover says residents can then use that information to decide where to see their primary care physician, get tested for COVID-19, or keep a distance from at-risk populations.
But the VDH faces two major challenges in boosting COVIDWISE’s effectiveness.
“I even did a poll of my neighbors one weekend,” Stover said. “There were, like, six of us gathered around and I just asked how many of them had downloaded the app, and there were a couple who didn’t even know what it was.”
Despite the commonwealth’s marketing efforts, many residents have never heard of COVIDWISE.
James McEachern is a Chesterfield County resident who prides himself on being an informed citizen. On his way to vote early in Chesterfield, he told 8News that he needs to know more.
“I would be interested in downloading,” McEachern said, “but my concern is why I’ve not heard of it.”
Wendy March is also a Chesterfield County resident. She’s been a registered nurse for 19 years, and currently works in emergency for a local hospital group.
“I’m concerned about security, I’m concerned about privacy,” March said. “If someone wants to use an app for education or if they want to utilize the CDC website or even the World Health Organization website, I think that’s great. I think educating oneself is wonderful. But I don’t necessarily agree with tracking. We already have so much of that anyway with Google and all the other apps that we have on the phone.”
COVIDWISE was built using Google-Apple framework, which, Stover says, means it cannot collect GPS data or personally identifiable information.
“There’s a relatively high mistrust in government in general, and I understand that,” Stover said. “You can’t use Apple and Google’s framework if you collect either one of those things. They won’t allow it.”
That’s true for all states across the U.S. utilizing this framework. Stover tells 8News the VDH is working to transfer its app to a national key server that will allow for cross-border communication.
“Most apps in states that are launching over the past month or so are automatically using that national key server, which simply means that if you were in Pennsylvania or New York or Virginia, or you went to visit family in New York, if New York is using the national key server and so is Virginia, then your app works the same way as the one in New York works, and you’ll still get the same notifications if you had lunch with someone who had reported as positive,” Stover said.
The server is housed by the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which means it does not cost the commonwealth to participate.
“I think Virginians have done a really good job of being proud of being first in something, that they are really happy to say ‘we’re first,'” Stover said. “Download the app. It’ll take you about 20 seconds. So you can download the app, you can install it. It won’t take you very long. You will see that it doesn’t ask for things like location data or personally identifiable information. Then you just close it and it’s sitting in the background. You don’t have to do anything.”