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Opinion: Washington’s COVID-19 Alert App Is Promising

Washington's long-awaited COVID-19 notification app WA Notify was launched on Monday by the state's Department of Health, and iPhone users were sent a message asking them to opt in or out by toggling a switch.

A sign outside a hospital point towards the emergency entrance.
(TNS) — Washington's long-awaited COVID-19 notification app called WA Notify was launched on Monday by the state's Department of Health. State iPhone users were sent a message asking them to opt in or out by toggling a switch. Android users can download the state's app through Google Play.

Within 24 hours of WA Notify's launch, over 700,000 tech-savvy Washingtonians signed on. DOH spokesperson  Amy Reynolds  told a member of the Editorial Board the robust response is encouraging.

As with any health-care intervention, we expect high safety-standards and privacy protections, and the state's exposure notification app guarantees both. The free app designed by Google and Apple engineers is voluntary; users are anonymous, and they can opt out anytime.

We say "sign up."

Given the high volume of coronavirus infections, we support any tool that helps identify and isolate folks who may have been exposed. The more people who use the notification app, the more effective it will be.

The concept is simple: The app uses radio-frequency technology, better known as Bluetooth. When a phone has been in close proximity with another phone, that phone will be alerted if it's been within 10 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.

Anonymous data is used all the time for routine and helpful purposes. How do you think Google and Apple maps know there's a traffic jam on the I-5? Anonymous data saves us from being late; now it can help save us from being a super spreader or ending up in the hospital.

Individuals infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic two to five days before they notice symptoms. This means they go out shopping, or share air with folks in restaurants without knowing they are spreading the disease.

Within 24 hours of a user testing positive for COVID-19, WA Notify will send instructions on how to enter a verification code which alerts other phones. All of this is done anonymously. The state's Department of Health never registers names, records or stores information.

This kind of notification technology is being used in over 30 countries. Washington is among a dozen or more states to adopt it. Studies conducted by Oxford, Stanford and Google show a 15 percent participation rate could reduce infection rates by 11 percent and deaths by 15 percent.

The uphill climb is convincing sceptics that WA Notify is safe to use.

And that's where the app's 18 member oversight committee comes in. Members include the Washington State Chief Information Security Officer, Washington State Chief Privacy Officer, Associate Dean from the University of Washington School of Public Health and many other stakeholders.

Their credentials should assure folks this tracing app isn't some "government surveillance conspiracy," as told by some on Twitter; neither is it an invasion of privacy. Phones are assigned randomized pin numbers; names are not attached.

As  Lacy FehrenbachWashington's Department of Health's deputy secretary for COVID-19 response said in a press statement, "We want the public to know that WA Notify doesn't need to know who you are or where you go in order to work."

Health officials and politicians promise a vaccine in the coming weeks, and that day can't come soon enough, but we'll still need coordinated attacks on the virus like mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, improved rapid turnaround testing, contact tracing, and, yes, technologies like WA Notify. ;

Healthcare workers across the state are asking for our help. They're standing at the bedsides of COVID-19 patients and comforting families of lost loved ones. We have to deploy every weapon in our arsenal, and right now, WA Notify is one more tool to slow down the cycle of transmission.

(c)2020 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.