State launches new smart phone app to help in COVID fight
— Created December 2, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
Gov. Jay Inslee has announced the addition of a new tool to aid in the battle against COVID-19.
At a press conference Monday, Inslee introduced WA Notify, an app that can tell users if they have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, while retaining complete privacy and anonymity.
“It is particularly innovative because it will alert people without ever having to share personal information. This is the beauty of it,” Inslee said. “This is a program that will alert you if you come in close proximity to someone who’s positive, without ever having to share your personal, private information.”
Inslee said the program uses cell phones’ Bluetooth technology, sharing a random code with other phones that have the WA Notify app, which makes it possible to alert people without sharing any personal information or location.
The governor stressed the system does not store or share any personal information, nor does it track users’ location or who is notified through the app. It also does not provide any personal information to developers or to the state Department of Health.
For the system to work, someone who has tested positive for the virus can enter a code from public health officials into WA Notify. Anyone who uses WA Notify who was near that person during their infectious period will get a notification that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Notifications will link users to information about what they should do next to protect themselves or others. There is no information about who tested positive or where the exposure may have occurred.
“This allows more people to get the testing and care they need quickly,” said Inslee. “All you need to do it is to activate this feature on your settings feature on an Apple product or download it as an app on other smart phone models.”
This app is strictly voluntary and according to Inslee, more than 200,000 people had already downloaded or activated the app by the time his press conference began.
“Obviously, the more people who take advantage of this, the more who will know whether they’ve potentially been exposed to COVID-19,” he said. “We’re releasing WA Notify in 29 languages, it uses an algorithm that determines how close users were, for how long, and puts it in the context of the COVID-infected person’s contagious period. The algorithm uses the CDC’s definition of a close contact…to decide to alert you or not.”
Inslee said models indicate that if just 15 percent of the population in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties alone used WA Notify, it could reduce infections by 11 percent and deaths by up to 15 percent. He said such a tool is a great complement to traditional contact tracing, but said the app is not a failsafe for whether or not someone has been exposed to COVID-19.
“WA Notify is one more tool for awareness and care that we did not have before in our fight against this virus,” said Inslee. “It seems to be a very elegant and important tool in a fight against a potentially fatal disease. We recommend it and we’re very happy people are already responding well to it.”
The app was created with help from the University of Washington.
“Privacy is absolutely paramount and the goal from the very start was to use this technology to help to minimize the spread of COVID-19 while protecting users’ privacy,” said Ana Marie Cauce, president of UW, adding the university conducted a soft launch of the program at its Seattle campus. “We were able to use it both to test privacy and to work out the technical issues. Our UW experts will continue to collaborate with Washington’s Department of Health to evaluate how WA Notify technology works, including evaluating its benefits to users and public health.”
With the Thanksgiving holiday behind us officials say they expect to see the holiday’s impact on the number of COVID infections in about six to 10 days, although the state ranked number one in the nation in terms of the number of people who chose to stay home for the holiday.
And even though vaccines will be hitting the state by mid-December, Inslee said it is more important than ever to continue to follow public health measures.
“We would really hate to lose lives when we’re getting this close to the vaccine,” he said. “This is not the moment to reduce our efforts; I would argue it’s the time to perhaps increase our efforts as we’re getting close to being able to have a vaccine for folks. The need to reduce the gatherings in our homes…that is still so important. It’s really great news to have the vaccine on the way, but to have the vaccine work, you’ve got to be alive [to] get it. We really hope people will continue what has been a really vigilant and resolute effort so far.”
The governor also announced the state’s Commerce Department will open applications this week for the additional $50 million in Working Washington grants for businesses hard-hit by the pandemic.
“If you know of a small business that has been heavily impacted by COVID – a restaurant, theater, music venue, your local bowling alley – please tell them to visit commerce.wa.gov/bizgrants and stay connected to the Department of Commerce so they can apply as soon as possible. We hope that this is going to help.”
The latest figures on the number of COVID-19 infections in Island County was not available by press time due to the holiday schedule. As of Nov. 25, there had been a total of 603 cases since the pandemic began. Visit coronavirus.wa.gov or islandcountywa.gov for the latest figures.
To download the WA Notify app or to find more information, go to WaNotify.org.