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Virginia launches first COVID-19 app in US based on Apple and Google tech

Covidwise could help determine if you've been exposed to the virus.

Published onAugust 5, 2020

coronavirus 1
  • Virginia has released the first COVID-19 app in the US based on Apple and Google exposure tech.
  • Covidwise lets you know if you’ve been exposed while protecting privacy.
  • Whether or not it gets enough adoption to help is another matter.

Apple and Google are finally making their COVID-19 exposure notification technology available in the US. Virginia has released the first app based on the framework, Covidwise, for both Android and iOS.

As with similar apps released in other countries, it relies on Bluetooth Low Energy to periodically generate anonymous tokens and receive those from other phones nearby. If you’ve met someone in the past two weeks who’s been using the app and tested positive for COVID-19, you’ll get a notification with instructions on what to do next (most likely to get tested and isolate).

The app is voluntary and handles tokens in the background. Privacy is a central concern. It doesn’t use GPS or other location services, and infected people aren’t asked to share their information. Apple, Google, and outside app developers don’t get any of your data, either. It’s a relatively decentralized system that involves little more than downloading updated lists of infected users’ tokens.

virginia covidwise covid-19 app
Virginia Department of Health

Just as in other countries, though, Covidwise’s effectiveness depends on numerous factors. More than anything, it requires widespread adoption to effectively identify outbreaks and protect users. If many people avoid downloading the app, it’ll provide only an incomplete picture of the virus. Virginia can heavily promote the app, but it’s not guaranteed to reach everyone.

Bluetooth limitations add to the concerns. The technology can tell you if you’ve been within relatively close range of an infected person, but not whether you were in any danger. You could theoretically get an alert for someone in your apartment building or bus who didn’t pose a real threat.

Read more: Apple, Google lay out rules for their Exposure Notification API

There also isn’t a common framework for interstate data sharing, so this won’t help as much for infected people visiting from outside Virginia.

Still, this could be an important step. COVID-19 contact tracing and testing are still very limited in the US, making it difficult to pinpoint the true number of cases and contain outbreaks. If enough people adopt the app, it could help manage the virus until there are widely available treatments or vaccines.

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