Pennsylvanians will soon be able to download a phone app that will alert them if they’ve had close contact with a COVID-19 patient, an effort that officials say will augment the state’s public health strategies without compromising user data and security.
The app, COVID Alert Pa, will be free to download starting in September, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday.
The initiative is the result of a $1.9 million contract with the Irish software firm NearForm, which developed an exposure-notification app that’s been installed by one-third of Ireland’s population.
Health officials there say it’s been a key component of the nation’s contact tracing system, which aims to identify and isolate potential COVID-19 patients before they can spread the disease.
Levine said Tuesday that the app will be completely anonymous and voluntary, and that “the more people who have the app, the more effective it will be.”
The app will only work on smartphones. It uses Bluetooth technology to detect other app users in close proximity. If a user indicates on the app that she tested positive for COVID-19, it will alert other users who had close contact with her that they may have been exposed to the virus.
The app defines “close contact” as being within six feet of a person for 15 minutes or more, Levine says.
Levine said the app will not track users’ locations, and will rely instead on the proximity of Bluetooth signals to identify potential points of exposure. It will work across state lines, linking with an identical app in Delaware and potentially other mid-Atlantic states, Levine said.
She said the state will not use any data generated by the app to make public health policies or enforce quarantine measures for COVID-19 patients or their close contacts.
She could not immediately say, however, what data the app would collect, how that data would be stored on servers, and whether or not state officials would be able to directly access it.
“We are very committed and conscious of protecting the privacy and security of all Pennsylvanians,” Levine said.
Contact tracing apps have been deployed across the globe with mixed success since COVID-19 emerged in China this winter. Governments in Britain, Norway and India all scrapped contact tracing apps amid concerns about user privacy and security, according to the New York Times.
The MIT Technology Review ranked the Irish app favorably among more than two dozen apps worldwide, giving it five stars for its transparency, data security and the limitations on how governments could use the data.
Levine said the app will not replace the state’s analog contact tracing system, which currently employs more than 1,200 tracers and case investigators.
Those workers are responsible for calling COVID-19 patients to ask about their activities and interactions in the days leading up to their diagnosis, and then notifying their close contacts of their potential exposure to the virus.
The centuries-old public health technique is instrumental to slowing the spread of COVID-19. But it relies on robust, rapid testing and public cooperation, which have been in short supply since the start of the pandemic.
Data show that the rate of COVID-19 testing in Pennsylvania declined in August after reaching an all-time high in July. That’s the result of backlogs at national lab chains, and the absence of a federally coordinated testing strategy, officials said.
Health officials have also reported that contact tracers have not been able to reliably reach people to inform them of potential exposures.
Some tracers say that COVID-19 patients have declined to disclose the names of their close contacts; others report that as many as half of their phone calls to contacts and patients have gone unanswered, the investigative news website Spotlight PA reported in June.
Levine acknowledged Tuesday that the state has to overcome skepticism to convince the public to use the app. She said the Health Department will launch a marketing campaign to “encourage people to download the app and to reassure them that they’re not being tracked and that this is totally anonymous.”