Phoning it in: Have tracker apps helped Virginia and UVA slow the spread of the virus?

Virginia’s COVIDWISE app uses Bluetooth to anonymously track the spread of the virus. Virginia’s COVIDWISE app uses Bluetooth to anonymously track the spread of the virus.

By Geremia Di Maro

As the community searches for answers to the COVID pandemic, both the Commonwealth of Virginia and UVA have rolled out apps designed to suppress the spread of the virus. While state officials are excited about the state app’s ability to track the disease, UVA’s app—which cost a similar amount to develop—merely encourages users to evaluate their own symptoms.

Almost two months after launching, the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app—the nation’s first COVID-19 exposure-notification app for iPhone and Android devices—is slated to reach an important milestone of 600,000 downloads in the commonwealth, as thousands of Virginians continue to download the app each day. Currently, about 13.2 percent of the state’s population has the app on their phones.

COVIDWISE is among a growing list of similar exposure-notification apps in the U.S. The app trades randomly generated IDs between cell phones via Bluetooth connection, without draining battery or accessing location data. Then the app compares the IDs the phone has received to a statewide database of IDs associated with positive COVID-19 test results. If an app user tests positive. and inputs that test in the app, any other app user who has been near the positive case will then be notified.

“There is no GPS or other location data at all, it doesn’t matter where geographically you were,” says Andrew Larimer, an engineer with Spring ML, who helped develop COVIDWISE and is also assisting in the development of a similar app in North Carolina. “The only thing that matters, from the app’s perspective, is whether you were nearby someone else who has gone on to test positive for COVID 19…This framework was designed to take people’s privacy concerns very seriously, and avoid any kind of location tracking.”

As of September 28, 225 positive cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed via COVIDWISE. 

“We don’t collect location data, we don’t collect any sort of personal identifying information,” says Jeff Stover, the executive advisor to the Virginia Department of Health commissioner. “The issue is for any given state, because it’s an anonymous process, it’s very difficult to link back to anything and show any kind of correlation …We understand that this creates data limitations for some people who would like to do more, but we’re serious about protecting patient privacy and just privacy in general.” 

However, Stover cited a recently published study by Oxford University examining the potential for exposure-notification apps to reduce the rate of infection and the subsequent number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in a given area, based on an analysis of app usage and case statistics in Washington state. According to the study’s findings, “a well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce combined with 15 percent uptake of an exposure notification system could reduce infections [from COVID-19] by 15 percent and deaths by 11percent.” 

Stover says that, with more Virginians downloading COVIDWISE each day, the state  expects to reach that 15 percent threshold in the next few weeks. He also emphasizes that there are still few concrete examples and metrics to hold COVIDWISE up to, since Virginia was the first U.S. state to employ exposure-notification technology in earnest. 

“Obviously, the more downloads there are, the greater the impact,” Stover says. “But because we were the first state out of the gate, it’s very difficult—it’s as if we’re running a race by ourselves, and we can’t really tell if we’re running fast or slow, or somewhere in between. So there’s no one to compare ourselves to.” 

Although not nearly as complex or as involved as the COVIDWISE app, UVA has also rolled out its own app—Hoos Health Check—for students, faculty, and staff to use to combat the spread of COVID-19 on Grounds and in Charlottesville. 

Designed through a partnership between the university and Charlottesville app developer WillowTree, Hoos Health Check is meant to work alongside and with COVIDWISE. UVA’s app does not share or collect data like an exposure-notification app, but encourages users to also download COVIDWISE, according to university spokesperson Brian Coy. However, Hoos Health Check does require users to sign in to the app via their university-affiliated account. 

Hoos Health Check cost $300,000 to develop, and Coy notes that this figure includes additional features embedded within the app, but did not specify what they were. By comparison, COVIDWISE cost $229,000 in CARES Act funds to develop and has a maintenance budget of $29,000.

“The primary purpose of Hoos Health Check is to prompt users to evaluate their own health and symptoms every day before coming to Grounds,” says Coy, “as a means of helping them make the decision to stay home and away from other members of the community in the event they are feeling ill (and thus, potentially infected with COVID-19).” 

The app reminds users daily to complete the symptom check, although it is only required if a student or employee plans to be physically present on Grounds on a given day. If a user reports no symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle pain, loss of smell or taste, etc.), he is presented with a set of guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask in the presence of others, maintaining social distancing, and encouraging others to also follow public health guidelines. 

If a user indicates that he’s feeling sick, the app “prompts him to contact student health or his health-care provider for additional screening,” Coy says. It doesn’t enter the symptoms in any database or automatically communicate with any public health authorities. 

Coy says more than 27,000 downloads of Hoos Health Check have taken place since its launch in early August, adding that the app sees greater than 80 percent daily usage across the university community.

COVIDWISE is free to download on Apple’s app store or the Android store. 


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