August Update: Exposure Notification Apps in the US

As summer approaches a close and academic campuses begin to open, more states are announcing launches or formal plans to launch their COVID-19 tracking apps. North Dakota led the way, followed by Alabama and Virginia. This importance of establishing a contact tracing app is coming more and more into focus: as of Saturday, 30 August 2020, more than 1,200 students and 166 employees and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 at the University of Alabama.You can check out ProgrammableWeb’s coverage of those launches here, and hereProgrammableWeb has a working list of APIs launched with the aim of assisting the effort to battle COVID-19. 

In the month of August a few more states launched official exposure notification/tracing apps. Most of the apps use the powerful Apple-Google APITrack this API, taking advantage of the free software. A few states are still opting to pay to develop their own software, citing security concerns about the decentralization of data, or discomfort with possible abuse of the software through tracking users. 

Pennsylvania rolled out a pilot test for their exposure notification app in the week of 24 August, 2020. According to Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, the app (COVID Alert PA) will be generally available in September 2020. The tracing app was built with the Apple Google API Framework (GAEN) and uses the same anonymous Bluetooth token tracking technique we’ve seen deployed in other states. This design hinges on users self-reporting a positive test result, so that the tokens can be used to track exposure. The state of Pennsylvania partnered with the University of Pennsylvania, and experts at MIT to develop the app. Irish software company NearForm has a $1.9 million contract to deploy and maintain the app, following their success with developing the official contact tracing app used in Ireland.  

Building on the power of the Decentralized Apple Google API, COVID Alert PA will be interoperable with the upcoming exposure notification app in Delaware (as well as two more unnamed states with apps in development). This means that a Pennsylvania resident using the app could be in Delaware and seamlessly keep up with exposure notifications. While no confirmation has come from the state of Delaware, one can infer that easy interaction with COVID Alert PA means that Delaware will also be using the Apple Google API. 

On August 19, CovidWatch launched an exposure notification app for students at the University of Arizona. The app was built by CovidWatch using the Apple Google API, in collaboration with the University of Arizona. In a phone call to the university, the campus medical office confirmed that the app would be available to in and out-of-state students coming back to campus. 

CovidWatch has plans to expand much further beyond the University of Arizona: 

The Covid Watch Platform’s global interoperability would allow an Arizona student going home to California for the weekend to select and change their region with ease, and return back to campus again, once the laundry’s all done. The same app and the same data will be interpreted through the lens of the updated region; no potential exposures are lost or blocked, providing the user with peace of mind that their health or the health of others will not be compromised simply by traveling outside the app’s reach. 

ProgrammableWeb will loop back with updates when the app expands beyond the University of Arizona campus.

Wyoming has released an exposure notification app as well. Mark Gordon, governor of the Cowboy State, announced the availability of the app in Wyoming on Friday, 14 August. The app, Care 19 Alert, uses the Apple Google API and was built with help from ProudCrowd, the same software company at the heart of the exposure app built for North Dakota.

This app, like the other apps using the Apple Google framework, uses random Bluetooth tokens which change every 10-20 minutes. After installing the app, iOS and Android devices anonymously share the tokens if the smartphones (and presumably, their owners) remain within six feet of proximity for at least 15 minutes.

The app downloads a daily list of the tokens associated with positive COVID-19 results. The success of the app hinges on users reporting a positive test result, so that their Bluetooth tokens can then be checked against the list of anonymous tokens the user has encountered in the previous 14 days before reporting.

Rounding out the launches in August is a release from the state of Nevada, where an exposure notification app using the Apple Google API has gone live. The app is called COVID Trace, and according to StateScoop, the app “was developed in tandem with a trio of independent software engineers from Seattle who had been trying to build an open-source contact tracing app, but could not make it available in Apple’s App Store because the company limits such programs to government health authorities.” This app functions with the same anonymous Bluetooth tokens and self-reporting requirements as other states using the Apple Google API. 

This brings the total current number of states with official exposure/tracing apps up to seven, with two more officially pending, per government sources (as of Wednesday, 26 August 2020). We invite you to check back regularly for more news and updates in our coverage.

*This article was updated 31 August 2020

Be sure to read the next Coronavirus article: October Update: State-Sponsored Coronavirus Apps