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Pennsylvania: Add Phones to the Fight and Download COVID App

Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Levine announced the launch of the contact tracing app COVID Alert PA earlier this week and hope residents will work towards a common good of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

(TNS) — Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of the Department of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announced the launch of COVID Alert PA, a mobile exposure notification app developed to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, in Philadelphia's Franklin Square on Tuesday.

Wolf noted that over the course of the past seven months of combating the virus, it has been proven that success is dependent upon banding together and working for the common good, and that COVID Alert PA will provide invaluable help with that mission.

"Today, we are launching the COVID Alert PA mobile app," Wolf said. "This app is a simple tool you can use to help fight COVID-19 every day, everywhere you go. I encourage you to visit your app store and download it for free today."

Levine said that as everyone plays a part in in stopping the spread of the virus, she is encouraging all Pennsylvanians to "add their phone to the fight" by downloading the app. "By utilizing this technology, we can quickly notify more people who have been exposed to COVID-19," Levine said. "This innovative solution will enhance our COVID-19 response and give residents another tool to stay calm, stay alert and stay safe all in the palm of their hands."

According to Wolf's administration, COVID Alert PA uses Exposure Notification System technology developed by Apple and Google in order to detect if a user has been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19. If and when this happens, the app will send a "COVID-19 Exposure Alert" to other users' phones, which provides public health guidance on what to do next. On top of that, the app will also provide the latest information on the virus in Pennsylvania from the Department of Health's COVID-19 data dashboard.

As of Tuesday evening, over 23,000 users have downloaded COVID Alert PA.

COVID Alert PA came about thanks to a partnership between Pennsylvania and Delaware, along with technology company NearForm, University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Internet Privacy Research Institute.

Pennsylvania Department of Health Deputy Secretary for Health Innovation Meghna Patel said that the commonwealth's app developers took inspiration from Australia, Singapore, Ireland and Germany's health departments, which were ahead of the game in developing similar COVID-19 contact tracing apps.

"Ireland and Germany are considered gold standards in this implementation of the novel technology," Patel said. "Ireland has about 37 percent to 40 percent of their population downloading the app, and Germany has about 20 percent to 22 percent of their population the app."

As other states begin developing and releasing their own apps – Delaware's version launched on Sept. 15 and has been downloaded over 24,000 times thus far – one of the primary concerns has been streamlining these programs to ensure that they can work together efficiently.

"So to avoid residents have 50 state-specific apps on their phones, we're working with Apple and Google and other states, with the Association of Public Health Laboratories, APHL, who has developed a national interoperability platform, which will allow seamless interoperability between places," Patel said. "So, if I'm traveling to New York, I don't have to download New York's app – Pennsylvania's app can work seamlessly in the background, and vice-versa."

How It Works

According to the Wolf administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the app is designed to be completely anonymous, and does not enable any location or tracking services. The Exposure Notification System uses Bluetooth Low Energy, which allows a phone with the app to recognize when it is in close proximity to another phone.

Patel explained the methodology of the app's contact tracing by providing a hypothetical example of two strangers, "Bob" and "Alice," sitting in a park.

Both Bob and Alice have the COVID Alert PA app on their phones as they sit within six feet of one another for 15 minutes or more, which constitutes "close contact" according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

"In the background, what happens is that Bob and Alice's phone devices exchange a Bluetooth handshake, which is nothing but a random alphanumeric value - in other words, they're also called Bluetooth "keys" or "chirps," Patel said.

As Patel told the tale, the two individuals go about their normal lives, only for Bob to find out a few days later that he has tested positive for COVID-19. Bob talks to a public health case investigator from the Department of Health or a local county health department, and proceeds to upload a six digit code provided by the investigator to the COVID Alert PA app in order to confirm his positive status.

The app will recall that interaction between Bob and Alice in the park, and proceed to send an anonymous notification to Alice, offering advice and information on precautions to take. Alice will not be notified of Bob's identity or his whereabouts.

Patel noted had Bob and Alice not had the app, even with other contact tracing efforts, Alice would never have received a notification of exposure – a fundamental issue with traditional contact tracing efforts.

Levine emphasized the secure nature of the app as well, a point that was reiterated by Patel and several other individuals involved in Tuesday's conference, noting that COVID Alert PA will not track locations or collect any personal data from users.

"This is the same technology that your smartphone uses to connect to your wireless Bluetooth headphones, or your car," Levine said. "The app will never ask you to turn on your location."

In fact, not even the Department of Health will know the identity of app users who receive alerts, as they will only see the number of exposure notifications generated on any given date.

COVID Alert PA is currently available in the Google Play store and the Apple App Store for free, in both English and Spanish, which will go a long way toward helping even more Pennsylvanians protect themselves against the virus.

"The biggest challenge since the pandemic has been keeping every resident of the commonwealth safe and informed," Governor Wolf's Advisory Commission for Latino Affairs Executive Director Luz Colon said on Tuesday. "That's why we're proud that this app is available in Spanish, so that we can extend our reach to the Latino communities through the robust translations service it provides. I strongly encourage the Latino Community to download this app and take an active role in helping protect you and your loved one during this pandemic."

Though it is voluntary to download, the more people who utilize the app, the more successful it can be in the mission to help contact tracing efforts, a point that Wolf's administration, and Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, stressed on Tuesday. With Pennsylvania counting 151,646 cases of COVID-19 and 8,023 deaths due to the virus so far, the need for such life-saving tools is clearly apparent.

"We need every tool available to control it," Farley said. "COVID Alert PA can help fill in the gaps in our investigations, but it only works to the extent that people use it. So, download it and activate it and help protect you and your family."

©2020 the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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