December Update: COVID-19 Exposure Apps In the USA

In the final two months of 2020, national attention turned to election results and the final FDA approval of vaccines. Today in medical facilities, the cries for preventative measures still ring out as ICUs have reached critical mass with COVID-19 patients, and vaccines have begun the nascent stages of rollout. This article covers state-sponsored COVID-19 exposure and contact-tracing apps launched in the US during November/December 2020. While the launch of exposure apps lack organization or cohesion, individual states were forced to create and fund individual solutions to a federal problem in a vaccum. 

In May of 2018, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, the senior White House official responsible for leading the national U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic, left the administration. His position was not was not filled by anybody else, and the global health security team he had overseen was disbanded. In March 2020, Jared Kushner took over leadership of an ad hoc White House pandemic task force. He announced to participants that “the federal government is not going to lead this response. It’s up to the states to figure out what they want to do.”

Those two alterations in leadership were key determining factors in the jagged timeline of the development of contact tracing technology for states. Today, attention to the presence of exposure and contact tracing APIs is still essential, particularly as vaccines slowly come available: the possibility of pivoting their use to tracking the use and availability of coronavirus vaccines could lie in the future of these apps. In the meantime, the availibility of vaccine is moving at a glacial pace, and the precence of new, more contagious strains of COVID-19 makes contact tracing more important than ever.

The dominant Platform in use for contact tracing apps is still the Google/Apple Bluetooth Exposure Notification (GAEN), a Decentralized system that allows nearby iOS and Android devices to exchange randomized and anonymous Bluetooth identifiers for use in later notifications of possible exposure. This system wraps together the original version released in May and the “Express” model launched in September.

The state of Maryland has reversed the position taken by their state attorney general Brian Frosh earlier this year regarding contact tracing apps: Maryland launched MD COVID Alert on November 10, 2020. The app was built with the Apple-Google API and uses the established anonymous Bluetooth low-energy protocols. Currently, MD COVID Alert works with the neighboring jurisdictions of DC, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. More information is available on the Maryland website

The offices of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) announced the launch of the MI COVID Alert App. This app uses the established anonymous Bluetooth low-energy protocols with the (GAEN) Apple-Google API, and is interactive with the exposure apps in Virginia, Arizona, New York, Alabama, and New Jersey, and has hit 500,000 downloads so far. 

While Illinois has so far opted out of building a state-wide exposure or tracker app, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has launched a notable exposure app called Safer Illinois which also allows students and employees to see where they can find COVID-19 testing sites, and get immediate updates to COVID-related news or changes in campus protocols.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the state of Minnesota announced the launch of COVID-aware MN. The launch of the app came a week after the release of an executive order from the governor of Minnesota announcing a month-long moratorium on social activity. Along with the GAEN platform, the platform was developed by the State of Minnesota and the nonprofit PathCheck Foundation. More information about the app can be found here

As predicted in earlier coverage, the District of Columbia also adopted an exposure notification app in October. The app, DC CAN, uses Exposure Notification Express, and is completely interoperable with Exposure Notifications apps from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Michigan, Colorado, Maryland and Virginia.

As the general public waits on access to the vaccine, coronavirus tracker apps will continue to proliferate. The (GAEN) Apple/Google API is a cross-country COVID-19 tracker app, used on a state-by-state basis, as well as interoperably on a national level. It is well positioned for federal adoption. The possibility of an official federal response or leadership team could be forthcoming with the new administration, and we will keep a weather eye open for exposure apps being repurposed to track vaccinations or notify people of the upcoming availability of the vaccine. 

*This article has been updated to include the expansion of states with which DC CAN is interoperable, likewise for MD COVID Alert.

Be sure to read the next COVID-19 article: Daily API RoundUp: Mantheos, VA, Serendipity API, COVIDcast