Washington has finally uploaded its tech prowess to curb Covid-19’s spread. Yesterday, weeks and even months after some other states rolled out contact tracing apps, the state unveiled a smartphone notification system for coronavirus exposures—another “tool in our toolbox to fight this pandemic,” as governor Jay Inslee put it in a Monday news conference.
“WA Notify” uses Bluetooth technology developed by Google and Apple to identify others who have activated the feature in an iPhone or Android user’s vicinity, assigning each of these signals a random number that changes every 10 to 20 minutes. It creates a log of those exposures over two weeks. If someone reports a positive Covid-19 test on the app via a public health-provided verification code, users who meet the current CDC close contact guideline will receive a notification and recommended next steps, such as self-quarantining, from the local public health authority. Android users can download WA Notify as an app for free; on iPhones, users must opt in to the feature via “Settings” (a software update might be necessary first).
The system complements contact tracing, which mass coronavirus spread inevitably foils. Critically, it doesn’t share or track any personal information. No location-pinpointing. No positive test–outing. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Inslee.
It’s also part of the reason why it took this long to deploy the technology in Washington (we did beat California and Oregon, though). According to state secretary of health John Wiesman, an oversight group’s review of privacy concerns was one hurdle to a speedier delivery. The state also wanted to make sure that the app was equitable (it’s available in 29 languages) and that its pilot launch at the University of Washington went smoothly.
Ultimately, Washington residents need to download (or turn on) WA Notify en masse for it to make a dent in our rising case tallies. Inslee and Wiesman cited a model that says 15-percent adoption of Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System across our region would lead to an 8-percent drop in cases and a 6-percent dip in deaths. Inslee also noted that more than 200,000 Washingtonians had already started using the feature, perhaps a sign that our tech-driven state is more like enthusiastic Maryland than others that have seen low adoption rates plague their contact tracing apps.
The CDC’s standard for close contact could undermine WA Notify’s influence. As Inslee said yesterday, the app won’t alert shoppers if someone on the other side of the grocery store has Covid, even though prolonged indoor exposure at distances greater than six feet can still infect people. If the app adheres too closely to the six-feet-or-less, 15-minutes-or-more guideline, it may not tell users anything they don’t already know. Essential workers can certainly benefit from awareness that they’ve spent time with an infected stranger. But diligent social distancers should be able to count on one hand the number of people that they’ve been in close contact with, and they would probably already know if Uncle Ned had Covid. And even if they didn’t, wouldn’t it be easy to then suss him out as the "anonymous" positive?
On the other hand, too many notifications would create another wave of pandemic anxiety that nobody needs right now. May as well give this first iteration of tech tracing a shot.